Barely a year has passed since BP established a claims fund to compensate victims along the Gulf of Mexico for the worst oil spill in American history. Yet the oil giant is ready to wrap things up and declare the disaster over. In a letter this month to the third-party claims administrator, BP says the gulf's "recovery had occurred by the end of 2010" and suggests it's time to close the checkbook. At the very least, the company said, the gulf recovery warranted a "re-evaluation" of who was owed outstanding damages. This is spin from a company looking to limit its losses. Federal and state officials are only now getting a grasp of the ecological and financial impacts, and they should not let the company off the hook prematurely.
BP is working the referee in advance of a federal environmental study that will largely determine what BP will pay to rehabilitate the gulf ecosystem. Under federal law, the party responsible for an oil spill must pay all cleanup costs and monetary damages to people and companies harmed by the disaster. The rosy picture BP paints of the gulf's recovery comes as the federal government is making an early assessment of the long-term impact of the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. That assessment is still months away; a fuller picture of the oil damage may not be known for years.
That hasn't stopped BP from declaring mission accomplished. In a memo to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, BP maintained that fishing and tourism in the gulf has rebounded, producing a "robust" economic recovery that would carry through 2011. BP called on the claims fund to suspend or re-evaluate payments to people and businesses who the company said were already back on their feet. The company also played some defense. BP charged that the claims fund had been overly generous in paying some claims and that, for the sake of expediency, it went outside the law in some instances by paying claims that had no direct link to spill damage. The company also revived the issue of proximity, complaining that the fund had improperly paid some claimants who were nowhere near the oil spill.
BP's memo is a quick stab at framing the discussion over its liability. But it comes nowhere close to serving as a careful examination of where the gulf stands one year after the oil spill. To their credit, U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio are on the same page in dismissing the letter and in demanding that BP honor its obligations. "They are trying to disengage," Rubio said. Adam Putnam, the state's agriculture commissioner, said flatly: "They still have a lot of claims in line before they start closing the purse." The federal government needs to continue with its environmental impact study, and Florida officials should demand from BP full payment for losses. Many victims and communities will need years to recover, and there is no fairness in allowing BP to rush for the exit.