WikiLeaks continues to roll out secret diplomatic cables from its cache of a quarter-million such communiqués, revealing late Wednesday that energy giant BP dealt with a blowout following a gas leak in the country of Azerbaijan 18 months before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

The news comes on the heels of the Justice Department’s announcement that it has filed a civil suit against BP along with eight other companies for violating the Clean Water and Oil Pollution acts, as well as seeking unlimited damages beyond the $30 billion BP has already paid for clean-up efforts and compensation of those affected by the spill.

The Guardian, one of five media outlets with early access to the trove of diplomatic communications being gradually released by WikiLeaks, released its report on the latest group of cables, one of which reveals that in 2008 BP suffered a blowout similar to the one that would later cause the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

On the Azerbaijan gas leak, a cable reports for the first time that BP suffered a blowout in September 2008, as it did in the Gulf with devastating consequences in April, as well as the gas leak that the firm acknowledged at the time.

“Due to the blowout of a gas-injection well there was ‘a lot of mud’ on the platform, which BP would analyze to help find the cause of the blowout and gas leak,” the cable said.

Written a few weeks after the incident, the cable said Bill Schrader, BP’s then head of Azerbaijan, admitted it was possible the company “would never know” the cause although it “is continuing to methodically investigate possible theories”.

According to another cable, in January 2009 BP thought that a “bad cement job” was to blame for the gas leak in Azerbaijan. More recently, BP’s former chief executive Tony Hayward also partly blamed a “bad cement job” by contractor Halliburton for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Another cable revealed that BP acknowledged it had narrowly avoided a larger catastrophe by successfully evacuating the 212 workers in Azerbaijan before the blowout, as well as recognizing the fact that the incident was little reported by the mainstream media:

“Given the explosive potential, BP was quite fortunate to have been able to evacuate everyone safely and to prevent any gas ignition,” said the cable.

“[BP’s then head of Azerbaijan, Bill] Schrader said although the story hadn’t caught the press’s attention, it had the full focus of the [government of Azerbaijan], which was losing ’40-50 million dollars each day’.”

The leak happened at the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshi (ACG) field, Azerbaijan’s largest producing oil field in the Caspian where vast undeveloped gas reserves also lie. BP is the operator and largest shareholder in the consortium, which includes US companies Chevron, ExxonMobil and Hess (formerly Amerada Hess), as well as Norwegian firm Statoil and Azerbaijani state owned oil company Socar.

Yet another cable, sent shortly after the accident, highlights the criticism leveled by BP’s partners in the region about the U.K.-based company holding back information — something U.S. authorities have said BP was guilty of following the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico last April.

“ACG operator BP has been exceptionally circumspect in disseminating information about the ACG gas leak, both to the public and to its ACG partners. However, after talking with BP and other sources, the embassy has pieced together the following picture.” It goes on to say the incident took place when bubbles appeared in the waters around the Central Azeri platform, signalling a nearby gas leak. “Shortly thereafter, a related gas-reinjection well for Central Azeri had a blowout, expelling water, mud and gas.” BP’s annual report last year referred to a “comprehensive review of the subsurface gas release” having taken place and remedial work being carried out.

The cable continues: “At least some of BP’s ACG partners are similarly upset with BP’s performance in this episode, as they claim BP has sought to limit information flow about this event even to its ACG partners. Although it is too early to ascertain the cause, if in fact this production shutdown was due to BP technical error, and if it continues for months (as seems possible), BP’s reputation in Azerbaijan will take a serious hit.”

The Guardian also reported that other leaked cables revealed:

  • Azerbaijan’s president accused BP of stealing $10 billion worth of oil from his country and using “mild blackmail” to secure rights to develop gas reserves in the Caspian Sea region.
  • American energy firm Chevron was talking to Iran about developing an Iraq-Iran cross-border oilfield, despite U.S. sanctions.
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