If you’ve been reading this blog regularly for the last four years, the notion that BP was grossly negligent in its actions linked to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe won’t come as a surprise to you. It’s a well-established fact, by this point, that the British oil giant ignored a series of looming problems in its offshore deepwater rig. The Big Oil icon nevertheless pushed to keep cutting corners in the drive for even bigger profits, and then it also went to great, albeit unsuccessful, lengths to keep the full extent of the spill a secret. All happened before BP’s recent crusade to undo its promises to make good on the damage the oil spill caused to the Gulf.
But inside a courtroom, the phrase “gross negligence” takes on a much greater significance. Under the law, the finding that a company didn’t just make an honest error but was willfully reckless in its actions can open that firm up to maximum penalties, especially under environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act. In the case of the millions of barrels spilled by BP, such a finding means that BP could be forced to pay as much as $18 billion in penalties, and today the judge overseeing the 2010 oil-spill case told the oil giant to start looking for its checkbook.
A federal judge ruled on Thursday that BP was grossly negligent in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil well blowout that killed 11 workers, spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and soiled hundreds of miles of beaches.
“BP’s conduct was reckless,” United States District Court Judge Carl J. Barbier wrote in his sternly worded decision. Judge Barbier also ruled that Transocean, the owner of the rig, and Halliburton, the service company that cemented the well, were negligent in the accident.
But the judge put most of the blame on BP, opening the way to fines of up to $18 billion under the Clean Water Act.
In a 153-page, densely technical decision, Judge Barbier described how BP repeatedly ignored mounting warning signs that the well was unstable, making decisions that he says were “primarily driven by a desire to save time and money, rather than ensuring that the well was secure.”
Judge Barbier painstakingly re-created the hurried effort to temporarily shut in a problematic well, deemed by some to be “the well from hell,” and shows how a series of problems, many of which were suspected by the rig’s crew, led to the blowout. Even after noting these anomalies, BP crew members ignored test results that should have reinforced caution, and, if heeded, could have prevented the disaster even in its final minutes, he wrote.
This is a huge development in the long-running BP matter for several reasons. It’s a big deal because the sheer amount of money at stake — $18 billion — means a potential surge of financial resources that can bring the Gulf a lot closer to where it needs to be in recovering from the spill, which took place some 53 months ago. The civil penalties that are now in play because of Judge Barbier’s ruling could help in restoring some of the coastal wetlands that were damaged by BP’s oil and pay for ongoing clean-up and monitoring, or for research on bringing marine life back to the Gulf in full force.
But I would argue that the big impact is psychological. Over the last year or so, BP has been engaged in a furious effort to re-write the history books, trying to pretend that the spill was not as bad as we remember it, and that the real problem is slick Louisiana swindlers trying to cash in on an oil company’s largesse. This demolishes that campaign in one fell swoop.
Instead, the public is reminded that the worst environmental disaster in American history — one that killed dolphins and sea turtles and oyster beds, that fouled white sandy beaches and peaceful marshlands, and made a lot of decent working people along the Gulf Coast sick — didn’t have to happen. The BP oil spill was not an act of God but an act of man — people who were trying to save a few bucks to boost the profits of a corporation that already had billions in income. Thank you, Judge Barbier, for reminding the world of that simple truth.
To learn more about today’s landmark ruling by federal Judge Carl Barbier, please read: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05/business/bp-negligent-in-2010-oil-spill-us-judge-rules.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=LedeSum&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news
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