Charging BP for Deepwater Horizon

Photo Credit: Angela Wang

Photo Credit: Angela Wang

By: Julia Reinitz

Leaking an estimated 172 million gallons of oil, the Deepwater Horizon spill was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Its impacts have been broad—not only did oil wash ashore in Louisiana, damaging wetlands and coastal habitat areas, but mixing of oil and ocean floor sediments is likely to affect ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico for years, if not decades, to come. To date, BP is facing approximately $36.6 million in fines from the federal government and has established a $20 billion fund to help victims of the spill.

However, BP is appealing the government-imposed fines and has suspended payments from their reparation fund, pending clarification of an order issued in December regarding a court supervised escrow account. They have also been granted new permits to drill in the Gulf of Mexico once more, effectively mitigating any serious punishment they might have faced for their irresponsibility.

Thus, the headlines about U.S. federal prosecutors preparing criminal charges against BP for the Deepwater Horizon spill were welcome to those of us frustrated with how successfully BP has dodged the consequences of letting millions of gallons of oil gush into the Gulf. Federal prosecutors are focusing investigations on engineers (and potentially their supervisors) who failed to accurately report critical safety information about the margin between the amount of pressure required to stop the well from exploding and the amount of pressure that would crack the oil-containing rock formations around the well.

However, as important as it is to punish the individuals whose specific negligence directly led to the spill, this litigation will do little to address the broader regulatory issues raised by the Deepwater Horizon debacle. An independent report prepared by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council stated that the oil industry at large lacks “a strong safety culture”. This indicates that the Deepwater Horizon spill was the result of broader structural issues regarding how oil companies approach environmental protection or lack thereof. Oil executives who foster a corporate culture that stresses profit over all other concerns produce lower-level employees who are likely to be cavalier about following even the strictest federal safety regulations.

Such behavior is especially unfortunate in an area like offshore oil drilling because the effects of a spill are so far-reaching. Not only did eleven men lose their lives because of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, but oil seriously damaged aquatic ecosystems relied upon by thousands of people residing in coastal states. Oil washed ashore for an entire year after the spill, damaging much of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. Autumn 2011 saw record-low shrimp yields in Gulf fisheries. Deposition of oil on the ocean floor may harm benthic organisms for years to come.

Julia Reinitz is a first-year at the College.