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Financial Times: BP pays to uncover shipwreck secrets (*a tale of BP/Shell Piracy?)

By Sheila McNulty in Houston
Published: February 8 2007 02:00 | Last updated: February 8 2007 02:00

The oil company BP has agreed to pay most of the $5m cost of excavating an historic shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico after one of its contractors was videotaped taking at least one item from the ship and damaging other artifacts, according to regulators.

The Minerals Management Service, which oversees oil company operations in the Gulf, said it negotiated the agreement with the British company, as operator and two-thirds owner of the Okeanos Gas Gathering Company in late 2004 or early 2005, after the two incidents.

“It was all considered in the masterplan,” said Eileen Angelico, MMS spokeswoman. “After the video came to light, we said: ‘You need to protect this [ship]’. This is the plan they came up with.”

BP said it agreed in April 2005 that Okeanos would spend $4.87m (€3.8m, £2.5m) for Texas A&M University to excavate and curate remains of the wreck. Excavation and recovery is to begin in May, 100 miles off the Louisiana coast, and the finds are to go on display in a museum in Louisiana.

Peter Hitchcock, Texas A&M’s project manager, said the study had revealed the ship was from between 1770 to 1820, and probably European, though her exact nationality had yet to be proven.

Muskets, cannons, a box of sabres, bottles and plates had all been spotted on the ship, said William Bryant, the university’s professor of oceanography. He declined to discuss what artifacts might have been taken or damaged by the contractor, noting the legal implications.

James Patrick Cooney, a partner at Royston Royzar law firm, said: “It appears that jurisdiction and perhaps ownership over such wrecks has been given to the Texas Historical Commission under the Antiquities Code of Texas. Indeed, there are criminal sanctions attached to the disturbance of historical shipwrecks without a permit from the THC.”

The MMS said it had not pursued anything beyond issuing in 2004 to BP, as Okeanos operator, an “incident of non-compliance” for unlawfully failing to stop work and report the discovery of archaeological artifacts in 2002.

BP said its then partner, Royal Dutch/Shell, had discovered “unknown debris”, according to log books, in about 4,000 feet of water when surveying the area as a minority partner in Okeanos and the pipeline installation contractor.

“It was only in 2004 that BP was aware of logbook entries that recorded ‘seafloor debris’ seen in 2002,” said Neil Chapman, a BP spokesman.

Royal Dutch/Shell said it and BP, as Okeanos owners, had agreed to “voluntarily work with the MMS to document, preserve and implement a restoration plan”. Yet it sold its one third interest in the Okeanos pipeline in late 2004 to Enbridge Energy. Shell said it was not aware that the contractor had discovered an archaeological resource during this survey operation.

That was about the time BP hired Oceaneering International to inspect facilities that had been within the path of Hurricane Ivan, and the contractor took video of the shipwreck site.

A BP employee, who demanded anonymity, said BP did not watch the video before showing it to the MMS, and was shocked when the regulator discovered the contractor taking items off the ship.

BP only said it “shared” the video with MMS: “It showed an ROV [remotely-operated vehicle] operator removing an item and dropping it in a bucket andthen damaging a number of artifacts with the ROVarm.”

Jack Jurkoshek, director of investor relations for Oceaneering International, said he had never heard of the incident and referred it to the company’s legal department, which did not return the FT’s call.

BP said it had since introduced new procedures and training for all contractors carrying out work for BP in the Gulf of Mexico. “It stresses the absolute necessity to report any ‘finds’ that could be of historic interest and not to disturb them,” Mr Chapman said.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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