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Congress rightly holds BP responsible for its actions

Staff Columnist

Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 16:08

On Sunday BP announced a settlement with the US Department of Justice totaling $4.5 billion over the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. It’s the largest financial penalty in US history, and considering the magnitude the spill, it’s fitting. BP should be held fully responsible for their actions.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others. The rig burned continuously for two days and then sank. Around the same time, an oil slick was noticed on the water where the rig had been. A damaged wellhead at the bottom of the ocean was leaking an estimated 62,000 barrels of oil per day, which it continued to do for the next three months. The spill ravaged local ecosystems as well as marine life and created an 80 mile “kill zone” around the well. Almost 206 million gallons of oil had been leaked by the time it was capped on July 15. BP spent those three months displaying their incompetency and unpreparedness in dealing with the damaged well. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they lied in a testimony to Congress, saying only 5,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking from the well when the actual figure was about 12 times that.

There have been tens of thousands of individual claims filed against BP, and they have already paid $36.3 billion to settle those and other criminal fines, as well as cleanup costs. The new $4.5 billion fine is a penalty for obstruction of Congress, manslaughter and misleading investors, and the company could still face up to $30 billion more in fines when their violations of the Clean Water Act and Oil Pollution Act go to trial. Part of the reason the fines are so high is because BP’s actions were deemed “gross negligence,” something the company fought hard against. The massive ecological harm, property damage, 11 deaths and subsequent obstruction of Congress absolutely should be enough to be considered “gross negligence”, and the company’s attempts to deny this are ridiculous. Unfortunately, oil companies often get their settlements from spills greatly reduced. The fact that the Department of Justice isn’t letting BP off the hook is good news.

What’s even more unique is that the three individuals have been indicted in the case. Two BP drilling rig supervisors who were in charge of the Deepwater Horizon rig have been charged with manslaughter and a former BP vice president has been charged with obstruction of Congress. It’s rare for corporate executives to be criminally liable for their actions and prosecuting them sends the right message. If we want to prevent oil spills, there needs to be something at stake for these companies.

After the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989, one of the worst environmental disasters in history, the company paid about $2 billion in cleanup and $1 billion to settle civil claims. In addition, Exxon was ordered to pay $5 billion in punitive damages but they appealed the decision five times. They took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was ruled that they would pay $507.5 million, about 10 percent of the original sum.

The definition of punitive damages is to punish or deter the defendant and others from engaging in actions similar to those that caused the lawsuit in the future. Since 1990, there have been at least ten accidental oil spills of a million gallons or more throughout the world. Just this year in January, an Exxon-Mobile tanker collided with a barge outside of Port Arthur, Texas, spilling 450,000 gallons of oil. For the last 20 years, there has been an average of about 1.5 million gallons of oil spilled into the world’s oceans every year.

Clearly, the penalties that have been brought on oil companies in the past have not done the job. While we’re still dependent of fossil fuels, it will be difficult to hold them fully accountable for their actions. Most companies would have their business licenses revoked for multiple manslaughter charges and obstruction of justice, but that’s simply not going to happen in this case.

Oil companies have shown that profit is their main concern, so we have to make it completely unprofitable for them to be reckless and irresponsible. The Department of Justice’s new resolve to hold both individuals and corporations fully responsible for their actions is not only what they deserve, it’s a good step in preventing spills.

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