If you follow the business news, you may have heard that BP has nearly burned through the money — believed to be some $40 billion — that the oil giant set aside to pay the array of claims and government penalties for the widespread damage to the Gulf of Mexico from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. In particular, the Big Oil icon is alarmed that Gulf residents, workers and myriad small businesses are putting in much larger claims than the company budgeted for, which was roughly $8 billion. BP has pleaded with government officials, unsuccessfully appealed to the federal judge in the claims settlement, even taken out ads to whine about the process.
As I’ve noted before, BP’s complaints — the idea that one of the world’s most powerful corporations of somehow being taken to the cleaners by slick, fast-talking Louisiana attorneys — are completely unfounded. In the weeks before the deal was signed off on, I attempted to argue that that there was a problem with the settlement — but that it was too small. I based that argument on the ever-mounting evidence of ongoing or newly discovered environmental damages — including diminished seafood catches, shrinking wetlands, and frequent episodes of tar balls washing up on beaches, as well as the downplaying of the severe health impacts on clean-up workers and others exposed to BP oil and the toxic dispersant, Corexit.
Now there is some back-up to that argument: A leading scientific panel is telling the federal government that BP’s damage to the Gulf is difficult to calculate because it is so all-encompassing:
A report from the National Research Council said the US government’s efforts to put a price on damage from the April 2010 disaster failed to capture the full extent of the environmental and economic losses in Gulf waters and coastal areas, fisheries, marine life, and the deep sea caused by BP’s runaway well.
Compiled by a team of 16 scientists at the request of Congress, the study went on to call for a sweeping overhaul of methods for putting a price on environmental losses – especially after an event on the scale of the BP disaster.
“The full value of losses resulting from the spill cannot be captured … without consideration of changes in ecosystem services – the benefits delivered to society through natural processes,” the report said.
What the scientists are saying, in essence, is that the current methods of calculating environmental damage aren’t really adequate for an event like the BP spill because they look for individual cases of harm — a polluted beach, say — but don’t take into effect the broader shocks to the entire ecosystem. And they state that when it comes to a body of water like the Gulf of Mexico, those ecological effects can be enormous: some 20 million people live and work along the Gulf Coast, and the region normally provides a disproportionate share of the nation’s seafood, some 25 percent.
Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland’s Centre for Environmental Science, who was a member of the White House commission on the BP oil spill, told the Guardian newspaper: ”If you get stuck in the game of paying out 25 cents a crab for example, you are not really in a situation where you are understanding the broader impacts of the loss of that population.” That is undoubtedly true. The report may lead to a better and fairer assessment of the penalties that BP will ultimately have to pay the feds and to state governments for its negligence. But what would be even better would be if heightened understanding of the ecological impacts helped prevent this kind of catastrophe from ever happening again.
To read more from the Guardian about the National Research Council study on Gulf damages, check out: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jul/11/us-assessment-bp-oil-spill-damage
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