Don’t shed a tear for BP’s lost billions


Do you think that you had a bad year in 2015? I can almost guarantee that economically, it wasn’t as bad as it was for BP, the British oil giant behind the worst oil spill in American history. This week, BP officially it announced its earnings for the quarter and for the year — but the term “earnings” is something of a misnomer. Indeed, the Big Oil icon lost a whopping $6.48 billion — yes, that’s billion with a “b” — last year.

The biggest factor, of course, is the worldwide plunge in oil prices, which has taken a lot of that cash that had been rolling into oil companies over the last decade and put it back in the pocket of everyday consumers. But BP has an additional problem — it’s still paying for the massive environmental and economic damage it caused in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, a catastrophe that also killed 11 workers on its oil rig. As the New York Times reported:

BP has sought to streamline its operations by selling some businesses — a strategy in some ways forced by its need to raise money to help pay damages from its oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The company took a charge of $443 million in the fourth quarter for that spill, bringing total provisions for the disaster to $55.5 billion.

Since 2010, the company has raised about $60 billion through sales of assets including stakes in three large Gulf of Mexico oil fields in 2012 and a Texas refinery in 2013. Most of those sales were made when oil prices were much higher than today.

You’re probably thinking that $60 billion is an ungodly sum of money. And you’re right, it is. But the large payout is truly a testament to both the damage that was unleashed by the unprecedented spill of more than 4 billion barrels of crude oil, and to the gross negligence committed by BP in failing to prevent the catastrophe.

Coincidentally, this week marks an annual ritual in the Gulf region over the course of the 2010s — the annual gathering of scientists and other marine experts to discuss what they’ve learned about the aftermath of the BP spill. This year, the four-day Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference is expected to draw more than 1,000 participants to Tampa. If you haven’t been following the Deepwater Horizon story closely, you might think that there wouldn’t be much left to talk about after six years. Instead, new evidence will be presented showing not only the fuller extent of the damage, but that the impact is continuing.

Here’s an example:

Arne Diercks, with the University of Southern Mississippi, will present his research that says the oil particles clung to “marine snow,” made up of sediment and organic material that drift to the bottom in the form of tiny clusters.

“Some of these naturally occurring aggregates then coalesce with oil droplets to form oily “snow storms,” according to a description of the discussion on the conference agenda. Scientists will discuss the latest research of oil-laden marine snow using underwater cameras to capture the snow’s gradual descent to the sea floor, providing new insight into the where all the oil went.

And here’s another:

Jamie Holmes, with environmental consultant Abt Associates, will moderate a discussion on the coastal areas affected by the spill, saying that while much of the oil along the northern Gulf shoreline was recovered, there remains large tracts of marsh that were impossible to get to by foot or boat.

Scientists have taken to the air to try to map how far into marsh lands the oil went, using radar, thermal and infrared imagery. Researchers were able to document not only the presence of floating oil in the Gulf marsh habitats, but also that some of the marshes had received more oil than previously thought.

In other words, no one should shed a tear for BP and its self-inflicted wounds. The economic damages that the oil company has been required to pay are unprecedented — because the environmental damage that was caused by the 2010 spill is unprecedented. And science isn’t done tallying all the costs. The reason that corporations like BP face a costly legal risk for their negligent acts is that society functions best when the cost of doing bad is a lot higher than the cost of doing good.

BP still hasn’t fully repaid its debt to the Gulf Coast.

Read more about BP’s 2015 losses from the New York Times:

Check out coverage of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference from the Tampa Bay Tribune:

Learn more about our early efforts to publicize the full extent of the 2010 BP oil spill in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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