BP should pay harshest penalties possible

Published 1:00 pm Friday, March 1, 2013

BP’s general counsel said recently that he’s confident that the company will escape the harshest level of civil penalties for the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not surprising that he would argue against the notion that the oil giant was grossly negligent for the spill, which poured 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. The company hopes to keep its liability from being quadrupled under the Clean Water Act, which is what a finding of gross negligence would trigger. The difference is huge: $4.5 billion for simple negligence or more than $17 billion for gross negligence.

With the civil trial before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier …. it is important to remember what led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the company’s spotty track record on safety. None of BP’s PR efforts can change that.

The federal government’s most conclusive report on the Deepwater Horizon explosion — which left 11 men dead — found that BP’s failure to assess the risks of its Macondo well and the company’s drive to cut corners at the expense of safety were the main causes.

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Significantly, the Joint Investigation Team of the Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement and the Coast Guard was the only non-criminal probe of the disaster with subpoena power. That allowed investigators to question, under oath, a large number of witnesses — many in public hearings conducted in Kenner — and to have access to extensive records from the companies involved.

Members of the joint investigative team clearly believed that BP personnel sacrificed safety in order to save time and money at the company’s Macondo well. The group’s September 2011 report noted that at the time of the blowout, the project to drill Macondo was behind schedule and $58 million over budget. The document included a chart keying on seven critical decisions in the design of the well and the drilling process — all made by BP managers.

BP also has a history of safety problems at other operations. …

The company has already pleaded guilty to criminal penalties in the 2010 Gulf oil spill. On Jan. 29, a federal judge approved a plea agreement between the U.S. government and BP requiring the company to pay $4 billion in fines to settle criminal charges stemming from the rig explosion and deaths. …

The question for the court, though, is what was in place leading up to the disaster. …

The bottom line is simple: BP should pay the highest penalties possible to undo the grievous damage it has done.