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Published: Monday, 3/19/2012

U.S. oil workers barred from leaving Brazil

Charges planned after offshore spill


RIO DE JANEIRO — A Brazilian court has ordered 17 employees of two U.S. firms, the oil giant Chevron Corp. and the rig operator Transocean Ltd., to surrender their passports, barring them from leaving Brazil as authorities prepare to file criminal charges in connection with an offshore oil spill involving the companies.

The ruling by Judge Vlamir Costa Magalhaes, issued late Friday night, adds to Chevron’s woes in Brazil, which began in November when oil was found to be leaking from an offshore field the firm controlled. Prosecutors have filed a civil lawsuit seeking damages of about $11.2 billion from the company.

Brazil’s navy and Chevron said Friday that they had detected a new sheen of oil from the same field where the earlier spill occurred.

Offshore drilling conditions are challenging. Pointing to the example of BP PLC’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, environmental officials in Brazil say that stiff penalties are needed against Chevron to pressure it and other firms to adopt strict procedures for preventing and dealing with spills.

Chevron, the largest foreign oil firm operating in Brazil, has argued that the country’s response to the November spill was an overreaction.

“I’ve never seen a spill this small with this size of reaction,” Ali Moshiri, the head of Chevron’s Latin America operations, told the Wall Street Journal in late 2011.

Brazilian authorities accused Chevron of lying about the scope of the November spill. And the news media lambasted George Buck, the head of Chevron’s Brazil operations, after he and Mr. Moshiri were summoned to Brazil’s Congress to discuss the spill.

Now Mr. Buck, an American, is barred from leaving Brazil, and a lengthy legal battle awaits him and other employees at Chevron and Transocean.

Prosecutors said the criminal charges for environmental crimes could result in prison terms of 20 years for each defendant.

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