BP's Gulf spill fine: Is the tide turning on corporate crime?

The fines build upon money that BP says it has already paid toward cleanup in the Gulf. Will they pay these new fees too?

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, right, with Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor, from left, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, to announce resolution of federal and state claims against BP for the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the restoration of natural resources in the Gulf of Mexico. The Justice Department and five states have finalized a settlement of more than $20 billion arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Tuesday, the US Department of Justice reached a settlement of more than $20.8 billion with BP over the company's handling of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.   

This settlement may mark the beginning of the end of an especially dark chapter in environmental history. In 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed eleven crew members and dumped approximately 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. News of the spill, and of BP's various attempts to contain it, tainted the company's public image and depressed its stock performance.

The fines are composed of several separate funds to be paid out over time, each with its own purpose. They include $5.5 billion – which Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch says is “the largest civil penalty in the history of environmental law” – to go toward addressing civil claims made under the Clean Water Act; $7.1 billion for natural resources damages claims made under the Oil Pollution Act; $4.9 billion for repairing economic damages in the five Gulf states affected by the spill; and an additional $1 billion to go to local governments.     

“At trial, our litigation team proved that the spill was the result of BP’s gross negligence… BP is receiving the punishment it deserves, while also providing critical compensation for the injuries it caused to the environment and the economy of the Gulf region,” Attorney General Lynch said this morning at a press conference. “I am proud that the Department of Justice has helped lead the way from tragedy to opportunity.”

This settlement builds upon money that BP says it has already directed towards restoration efforts for the Gulf. BP officials say they have already spent approximately $28 billion in cleanup efforts for the Gulf, $14 billion of which was directly invested in cleaning up the shoreline.

The real question here is whether BP will actually pay the agreed-upon settlements. ExxonMobil still has not paid all of the settlement money it agreed to pay towards the Alaskan government and its people following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Independent research has also determined that there is still a significant amount of oil awash on Alaskan shores from that accident, counter to earlier projections.

BP has stated that in some cases, the severity of the Deepwater Horizon crisis was mitigated because the oil spilled was a “light” crude, rather than the heavier oil that was spilled during the Exxon Valdez spill. But, research indicates that there are still petrocarbons embedded in the sea floor as a result of the spill, whose decomposition rate may be slowed because of the colder temperatures and lack of oxygen on the ocean floor.

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