On January 27th, as the U.S. Justice Department expounded upon the
catastrophic harms of offshore oil drilling in the trial against BP for
the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, President Obama reneged on a 2008
campaign pledge by proposing to open up a vast stretch of the Atlantic Coast to offshore oil drilling for the first time.
Doing so would be tragic. Recent judgments in the civil trial against
BP, which has entered its third and final phase in a New Orleans court,
will not only result in a significantly reduced fine for BP, but may
also mean that no meaningful regulatory changes are implemented to
reduce the likelihood of another similar disaster.
Press attention has largely focused on U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier's January 15th finding
that nearly one million fewer barrels of oil were released into the
Gulf than scientists working for the federal government had concluded.
Even more significant, however, was Barbier's concurrent finding that BP
was not grossly negligent in its planning or preparation for a
deepwater blowout or oil spill – dramatically lowering the stakes in how
BP will be punished for its inability to stop or deal with the largest
offshore drilling oil spill in history.
In September, Barbier had previously found BP grossly negligent for causing the April 20th, 2010 blowout of the Macondo oil well, the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon
oilrig, and the initiation of the oil spill. This enables him to fine
BP as much as $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled under the U.S. Clean
Water Act, though he is not required to do so. The latest rulings now
help guide his determination of exactly how much that fine will be.
They are, however, misguided. They mean that even though Barbier
found BP liable for causing the blowout by making decisions "primarily
driven by a desire to save time and money" which were "dangerous" and
"motivated by profit," the company will not be liable for punitive
damages and will be fined far less than the $18 billion originally
sought by the government – at least one expert has predicted the fine
could be as low as $3.5 billion.
But it could be even less. In a statement, BP says that it is
continuing to review the Court's decision and "believes that considering
all the statutory penalty factors together weighs in favor of a penalty
at the lower end of the statutory range" – which is a mere $140,000.
The ruling also suggests that critical safety improvements are now far
less likely to occur.