With news that an expected trial over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is being delayed until January 2013 and reports of a settlement in the works, BP is again trying to avoid paying all it owes to the Gulf of Mexico, even while netting $25.7 billion in profits in 2011. It is time for BP to commit to restoring the entire ecosystem that was affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill. This would truly revitalize the economy of the gulf.
BP says it wants to "make it right" in the wake of the gulf oil disaster. To know how to fully make it right, we have to consider what went wrong: The Deepwater Horizon tragedy took the lives of 11 men, wrecked the Gulf Coast economy as it was recovering from hard economic times, and significantly damaged fish, wildlife and natural ecosystems of the Gulf Coast.
If recent news reports are true, BP is proposing to settle for less than half of what it could face at trial. This would be an unacceptable and unjust result for the American people. The Gulf of Mexico is a national treasure, and though the gulf states suffered the brunt of the impacts, we owe it to all Americans to ensure that BP pays for all the damage it caused.
According to the Oil Pollution Act, a responsible party is liable for actual damages and cleanup costs. This includes harm to natural resources and the loss of services that healthy ecosystems provide to the public. The science is still under way to assess the extent of the environmental damage caused by the illegal discharge, and the public does not have access to all of the available scientific data, but amounts paid in similar disasters suggest the potential scope of OPA liability.
For example, following the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez tanker in Prince William Sound, Exxon paid the equivalent of $152 per gallon in 2012 dollars. Approximately 206 million gallons were released in the gulf oil disaster. If BP and the U.S. government were to settle for a similar per-gallon amount, the compensatory restoration amount alone would be over $31 billion.
Additionally, under the Clean Water Act BP can face penalties of $1,100 per barrel of oil spilled, but recent pleadings by the Justice Department suggest there is evidence BP was grossly negligent, which would increase those fines to $4,300 per barrel spilled. With 4.9 million barrels of oil released from the well, BP would be responsible for an additional $5 billion to $21 billion in Clean Water Act civil fines alone, and potentially millions of dollars in civil fines for the discharge of methane gas from the well.
In addition, BP should be required to pay every penny it owes for criminal violations of the Clean Water Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which should amount to additional hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more.
BP and its co-defendants are required by law to fully restore the gulf's natural resources to their predisaster condition, cover ongoing cleanup costs, and pay tens of billions of dollars of civil and criminal penalties. Allowing BP to pay significantly less than what is required under law, and less than what is needed to restore the gulf, would send the wrong message about accountability for environmental wrongdoing of this magnitude.
There is a broader, long-term vision for a renewed gulf in the wake of disaster: revitalization and restoration of its wetlands, fisheries and coastal and marine habitats and, ultimately, its people. Whether there is a trial or a settlement, making the gulf whole again, and even better, should be the highest priority. BP should stop shortchanging the gulf, embrace this vision, and get to work to really "make it right."
Larry Schweiger, bottom left, is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.