Letting BP Off the Hook: Blurring the Line Between Environmental and Economic Damage


A conflict is brewing between Alabama officials and the federal government over how to use funds specifically set aside for restoring the Gulf’s natural environment. And while you can understand the arguments for lumping together environmental and economic damages, it’s legally and strategically imperative that we keep the two separate.

George Altman from Mobile’s Press-Register covered the dust-up that included this comment from Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s press secretary: “You really can’t separate the damage done environmentally and the damage done economically.”

And this from the governor himself: “For the federal government to come up and say that all of this NRDA (Natural Resource Damage Assessment) money has to go out for ecological restoration, and not for economic, is typical for a federal bureaucracy, telling the people what their needs are… We never need to get to the point that any state has to have permission from the federal government to spend money that is rightfully ours.”

I understand where the governor is coming from, but I believe that we can – and we must – separate environmental and economic damages. Clearly, the Alabama approach is to take money specifically set aside for natural-resources damages and use it for something else, like economic recovery. With so many Gulf residents facing financial ruin, that’s an understandable reaction, but a more effective strategy is to increase BP payments and fix the claims system, not divert important resources from environmental restoration. Economic claims have the courts to help recover damages, but environmental restoration will largely depend on fines from laws like the Clean Water Act. And there is concern that the fines may not be enough to cover the widespread and long-term damage to the Gulf ecosystem.

Using restoration money to offset economic losses will, in effect, let BP off the hook to a large degree because it will reduce pressure on the company to “make it right.” Doing so would work against the interest of all Americans, who certainly have a stake in making sure Gulf restoration is not short-changed. One thing is very clear: The economic damage to our nation will be severe and long-lasting if we don’t fully restore the Gulf environment as soon as possible.

See the Register story here: http://blog.al.com/live/2010/11/riley_feds_are_demanding_contr.html

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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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