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Court Ruling Could Require BP to Pay Billions in Fines for Gulf Oil Spill Restoration

A federal judge ruled last Thursday that BP acted with “gross negligence” in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. This decision could result in the company paying an estimated $18 billion in fines. And the vast majority of that money must be spent on restoring the environment and coastal communities devastated by the spill.

This ruling marks an important turning point in the recovery of the Gulf. It vastly increases the money available for restoration because a verdict of gross negligence comes with an automatic fine of $4,300 per barrel spilled, as opposed to $1,100 per barrel for simple negligence.

If also sends a powerful wake-up call to polluters.  Eighteen billion dollars is a lot of money, even for a corporate giant like BP. Other energy companies will get the message that if they disregard safeguards, they too will pay a very steep price.

Deepwater.Horizon.Rig.Explosion.Flickr.jpg

This kind of ruling is critical for holding bad actors accountable for their carelessness.

When I served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, I was shocked by BP’s numerous errors and misjudgments at the Macondo well. The company ignored countless warning signals, failed to share critical information, and had a general disregard for the risks involved in drilling a mile deep more than 45 miles off the coast.

Judge Carl Barbier found a similar pattern. “BP’s conduct was reckless,” he wrote in his decision. The company’s decisions were “primarily driven by a desire to save time and money, rather than ensuring that the well was secure.” He singled out the failure to respond to test results done on the rig that could have headed off the disaster just before the blowout—if they had been heeded.

Eleven men died as a result of that misconduct. More than 170 million gallons of oil was sent into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating marine life and threatening the livelihood and cultural traditions of thousands of families.  

Since the well blew out, BP acknowledged it played a role in the disaster, but claimed responsibility must be shared with the other companies involved. This ruling confirms that BP is most at fault. Judge Barbier assigned 67 of the blame to BP, 30 percent to Transocean, and 3 percent to Halliburton.

No doubt BP will appeal the decision, but when the money finally arrives, it will greatly benefit the Gulf. In 2012, Congress passed the RESTORE Act requiring that 80 percent of all penalties go directly to the recovery of the five states most impacted by the oil spill. NRDC supported the RESTORE Act, and we will work to ensure money is devoted to reviving the ocean ecosystems that belong to all Americans and that support so much of the local economy.

And we will continue to push for Congress to finally establish stronger safety and environmental protections. We need these measures to prevent other companies from acting with BP’s recklessness and to protect our nation’s marine riches and coastal communities. 

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