More evidence that BP got off too easily


Last week I wrote here that BP’s $54 billion payout for damages and restoration from the 2010 Gulf oil spill just wasn’t really enough — both because of the ongoing environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil that continues to wash up on our beaches and because dollars trumped real accountability. You won’t hear that critique too much from public officials, who are too preoccupied with boastful press releases and dreams of how they might spend the cash, which is supposed to go for environmental projects such as wetlands restoration, But it’s good to hear that other voices are also finding fault with the deal as too favorable to BP.

For example, a piece this week on, entitled bluntly, “Big Oil wins again: Why BP isn’t sweating its “historic” Gulf spill settlement,” re-hashes some of the critical points, that the fine for one of the world’s richest oil companies will amount to just 40 cents on the dollar compared to what it could have been forced to pay — in a deal spread out over a number of years. It further notes:

The Gulf, on the other hand, will only now be beginning the long work of restoration that lies ahead. Part of that project, said T. Prabhakar Clement, an environmental engineer at Alabama’s Auburn University, is simply determining how much oil continues to contaminate the Gulf — and it remains unclear how long it will take for background oil contamination levels to revert to where they were prior to the spill.

“There is a perception out there that after five years, everything is gone, that the beaches are clean and we have completely recovered,” Clement told Salon — a non-truth that’s nonetheless been argued bp BP itself. Seeing as he’s still collecting hundreds of tar balls off the shoreline, he said, “We may not reach the old background level for a long time. Maybe not in my lifetime. That may be a reality of it.”

Yet the sentiment persists that residents of the Gulf should feel grateful to have received anything — a fair assessment, given how fiercely BP fought all of the legal actions taken against it. “I fully appreciate that environmental groups in the Gulf of Mexico, local and state governments, were fearful that they wouldn’t even get anything close to this,” [journalist Antonia] Juhasz said. “Particularly when you’re from the South, and the U.S. Gulf Coast, and you’re used to the oil industry getting its way, this looks like a really good deal. And in many ways it is better than what the Gulf Coast is used to getting in its relationship with Big Oil.”

What’s happening here is a complicated dance of dollars. Washington and the cash-starved state capitals of the Gulf Coast are getting a massive influx of money — but to obtain that income, BP needs to be protected, even pumped up, as an ongoing profitable concern. The result: Not only is the potential fine sharply reduced, with the payments spread over a manageable period of time, but the government also plays ball by granting BP new leases to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, at locations just as risky, if more risky, than the Macondo site where the 2010 catastrophe occurred. Indeed,  guaranteeing the golden goose of BP payouts may well explain why the feds were so reluctant to charge any high-up company executives with a crime. As journalist Juhasz, author of a recent searing analysis of the environmental damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon, noted this past week on the radio show “Democracy Now”:

So, the federal government had argued, and most independent scientists agreed, that 4.1 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico. And the judge had found in September that BP was grossly negligent, which brings a fine of $4,300 per barrel, which would have equaled an $18 billion fine. The judge then ruled that it felt—that he felt that only 3.1 million barrels of oil were spilled, which would have reduced the Clean Water Act fine to about $14 billion. But this settlement only provides $5.5 billion in Clean Water Act fines, so that’s more like about $1,800 per barrel of oil spilled, so BP got off on that provision.

Then, in addition to the Clean Water Act, this also covers all natural resource costs and restoration. And the National Wildlife Federation did an analysis a few years back that that number should have been about $31 billion alone. But in this settlement, BP gets $7.1 billion for natural resource restoration, plus $1 billion it had already paid, so that’s $8 billion.

So it’s clear the settlement won’t really deal with all the damage that BP has caused, but that’s not what worries me so much. What terrifies me is what will happen the next time that BP’s now-expanded operations in the Gulf go horribly wrong.

Read’s analysis of why BP got off too easily in the deal:

Learn more from Antonia Juhasz’ interview with “Democracy Now”:

You can read more about our ongoing efforts to hold BP accountable for the 2010 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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