The massive fine and criminal charges levied against British Petroleum last week are drawing mixed responses from environmental groups wary of how the case has been handled and what it will mean for the Gulf community and environmental safeguards in future deepwater drilling. BP announced on November 15 that it will plead guilty to 11 felony counts of “seaman’s manslaughter” for the deaths aboard the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon oil rig which exploded April 20, 2010. It also agreed to pay $4.5 billion in fines, the largest such penalty ever levied by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Greenpeace International called the $4.5 billion “small change for BP” in light of the company’s enormous profits. BP’s third quarter profits alone from this year amount to $5.5 billion. John Hocevar, the oceans campaign director for Greenpeace says: “The price of one sperm whale in the gulf is immeasurable and we still don’t know the full ecological story of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster. This settlement buys off further government silence about the full impacts. The Gulf deserves a full accounting for the damage BP has done, and this settlement is simply BP trying to buy its way out of responsibility.”
Because BP can easily absorb the fine, Greenpeace argues that the company has little incentive to improve its safety measures moving forward. “This fine amounts to a rounding error for a corporation the size of BP,” said Greenpeace senior investigator Mark Floegel.”Nothing in this proposed settlement gives any oil company incentive to be more careful in future operations. Cutting corners and skimping on safety will still be the rule of the day,” he said.
The $4.5 billion reflects $1.3 billion in fines in addition to almost “$2.4 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, $350 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences and about $500 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission.” The money is specifically for obstruction of justice—the way in which BP was found to have misled the government about the amount of oil leaking from the exploded well—as well as two misdemeanor charges for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Clean Water Act.
Three former BP employees were also charged with felonies related to failures in performing a necessary safety test. But these charges may be just the beginning for BP. If the company is found to have committed “gross negligence” in allowing the spill of some 172 million gallons of crude into the Gulf it could face “up to $420 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act” though analysts say it will likely be much less. Certainly significant environmental resititution remains for the damage the spill inflicted on the Gulf ecosystem, its fisheries and the lives of so many who depend on them. The civil case is set to go before a federal judge in New Orleans in February.
In responding to the current fines, Francis Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council called the settlement “an important step in holding BP accountable and it’s especially significant that BP is pleading guilty to felonies. Still, no fine or admission of guilt can ever bring back the eleven lives lost. Nor can it make the communities of the Gulf whole again. What we hope it does is send a signal to Big Oil that unrelenting irresponsibility will no longer be tolerated. Human life, devastated communities and destroyed resources should never be the cost of doing business.” Beinecke then called for a “sizable civil penalty.”