Big oil spills have serious consequences for those who cause them. That is the message from the ongoing case against oil giant BP regarding the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and led to the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
This month, the company agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion penalty to settle criminal claims brought by the Justice Department, including negligence in the deaths of the oil rig workers. Three individual BP employees face criminal charges, two of them for manslaughter.
BP also admitted to obstructing Congress and giving shareholders false information. The disaster, according to Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, resulted from BP’s culture of “profit over prudence.”
But that is hardly the end of the case. The Justice Department also will pursue civil claims against the company for violations of the Clean Water Act and other statutes, which could result in tens of billions of dollars more in fines.
BP already has paid out or committed to pay up to $30 billion in cleanup costs in the Gulf of Mexico and as compensation for economic damages. While the government will continue to pursue the civil suit that accuses BP of “gross negligence,” Justice Department officials now are talking with company officials about a settlement.
A settlement would help ensure that gulf states affected by the spill could receive the money quickly and begin to use it to address environmental damage. Louisiana, for one, hopes to mount an ambitious coastal restoration project with its compensation.
Don’t shed too many tears for BP. A year after the spill, the company generated $5.3 billion in net profits.
Still, the Justice Department’s goal should not be to put BP out of business or to discourage other companies from exploring for oil in a prudent way. Rather, the message to the industry should be that such heedless disregard for the environment and those who make their living along the coast won’t be taken lightly.
The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig led to the release of more than 4 million barrels of oil in the Gulf. The spill devastated the ecosystem in the Gulf in ways that might not be known for decades.
The spilled oil also invaded wetlands critical to protecting the coastline from erosion and hurricane damage. And the disaster affected the livelihoods of those who harvest the Gulf and those who run the tourist industries on shore.
The United States is entering what many believe will be one of the most productive energy exploration eras in history, making the nation one of the predominant oil suppliers in the world. The U.S. eventually could surpass even Saudi Arabia.
The boom will spawn a huge number of oil rigs, many of them located in environmentally sensitive areas. BP’s ongoing travails should serve as a warning to all of what can happen when companies put profit over prudence.