Nelson seeks hearing on BP's proposed settlement

Published Aug. 5, 2015

Florida's senior U.S. senator, Bill Nelson, is pushing the U.S. Justice Department to hold at least one public hearing in Florida on its proposed $18.7 billion settlement with BP over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

And if in the future the Gulf of Mexico exhibits some new harm as a result of the oil and dispersant that spread around the gulf in 2010, Nelson wants the agreement to include a clause that says more damages might be forthcoming.

Nelson, D-Florida, has been critical of the settlement ever since it was announced a month ago, contending that the fines should have been much larger than what the company agreed to pay. Others, notably Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, called it the best possible outcome short of gambling on a trial. Florida's share could be more than $3.25 billion, paid out over 18 years.

In a letter he sent to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch last week, and released publicly Tuesday, Nelson noted that the fine against BP works out to "only $1,724 per barrel of crude spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. This falls far short of the $4,300 per barrel maximum fine faced by BP for gross negligence and willful misconduct."

That's why, Nelson said, the people who suffered during the oil spill should get to comment on that settlement, and folks in Florida should get at least one public hearing on it.

Scientists are still at work determining just how badly the oil and dispersant used on the spill might have harmed the gulf's fish and other sea creatures.

"Though the agreement in principle includes $700 million to address future harm, there is no guarantee that long-term impacts won't far exceed that number," Nelson wrote. That's why he wants a "reopener clause" that allows a larger fine to be levied if — as happened with the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska —the full ramifications of the damage does not become clear until years later.

He also noted that BP could write off more than $8 billion of its payment on its taxes, and urged Lynch to make sure the settlement includes language forbidding BP from doing that.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster began in April 2010 with an explosion that killed 11 crew members. The rig sank 5,000 feet to the bottom of the gulf and began gushing oil. Because the leak happened so far from the surface, BP could not immediately figure out a way to shut it off.

Oil first washed ashore on Florida beaches in June, and BP was not able to shut off the flow until July.

Nelson is a diehard opponent of offshore drilling. This year he has already announced his opposition to the Obama Administration's plans to open up more of the Atlantic coast to drilling, and to a GOP-backed bill that would repeal a ban on drilling in the gulf as close as 50 miles from Florida's beaches.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.