NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge on Tuesday approved an agreement for BP PLC to plead guilty to manslaughter and other charges and pay a record $4 billion in criminal penalties for the company's role in the 2010 rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
What the plea deal approved by U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance doesn't resolve, though, is the federal government's civil claims against BP. The company could pay billions more for environmental damage from its spill.
Vance noted that BP already has racked up more than $24 billion in spill-related expenses and has estimated it will pay a total of $42 billion to fully resolve its liability for the disaster.
The judge said the $4 billion criminal settlement is "just punishment" for BP, even though the company could have paid far more without going broke. In accepting the deal, Vance also cited the risk that a trial could result in a much lower fine for BP.
The criminal settlement calls for BP to pay nearly $1.3 billion in fines. The largest previous corporate criminal penalty assessed by the Justice Department was a $1.2 billion fine against drugmaker Pfizer in 2009.
The plea deal also includes payments of nearly $2.4 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences. The two groups will administer the money to fund gulf restoration and oil spill prevention projects.
Before she ruled, the judge heard an apology from a BP executive and emotional testimony from relatives of the 11 workers who died when BP's blown-out Macondo well triggered an explosion on the rig and started the spill.
The relatives urged her to reject the settlement as too lenient.
"I've heard and I truly understand your feelings and the losses you suffered," Vance told the family members.
BP agreed in November to plead guilty to charges involving the workers' deaths and for lying to Congress about the size of the spill from its broken well, which spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil. The company could have withdrawn from the agreement if Vance had rejected it.
BP America vice president Luke Keller apologized to the relatives of the workers who died and for the spill's environmental damage to the Gulf Coast.
Most of the families of rig workers who were killed or injured in the explosion already have settled their claims against BP, through a process separate from this plea deal.