BP: Crime and Punishment

These oiled birds in the Gulf of Mexico are a very small example of the disastrous consequences of what now appears to be gross, willful, and criminal negligence and cover-up from BPIt appears that justice may be catching up to BP in the wake of the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. A total of at least 4.9 million barrels of oil are estimated to have been spilled making it the worst marine oil spill in U.S. history. The company is being accused of lying about the extent of the oil leak and knowing that their deepwater drilling methods were not sound.

In addition to lying about the amount of oil that was leaking into the Gulf, they tried to cover up the extent of the oil spill with dispersants. These chemical agents force the oil below the surface of the water and make the visible slicks disappear. To “cleanup” the spill, BP has admitted to having poured at least 1.9 million gallons of a toxic dispersant called Corexit, which is a known mutagenic.

The incident began when Transocean Ltd’s Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire while finishing a well for BP. The rig sank on Earth Day (April 22, 2010), two days after the initial explosion. In addition to killing eleven workers and injuring 17 others, the explosion and subsequent spill also shut down one of the most fertile fishing grounds in the U.S. The oil that spewed from the well decimated the local economy, killed wildlife, destroyed marine habitats, and continues to compromise livelihoods and health.In 2012, almost two years after the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, BP provided a $7.8 billion settlement to more than 100,000 businesses and individuals harmed by the 2010 oil spill. However, this is a small fraction of Federal and state claims.

Since that tragic incident began, BP has been in damage control mode. BP’s PR efforts include carbon offsetting for the 2012 London Olympics and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. BP Target Neutral has offered to offset any carbon emitted by spectators’ travel to the 2012 London Olympic Games. BP also reports that it has reduced its direct greenhouse gas emissions by almost 3 million metric tons (64.9 million metric tons in 2010 to 61.8 Mte in 2011).

Although BP asserts that seafood in the Gulf is as safe now as it was before the accident, these assertions are contradicted by test results, which show sick and deformed fish and other sea life in the vicinity of BP’s fractured well. An investigation by Al-Jazeera also confirmed that there are serious residual impacts of the Gulf oil spill.

Recent scientific research led by East Carolina University confirmed that “oil from the Deepwater Horizon explosion successfully found its way into zooplankton—small organisms that serve as the foundation of the Gulf food chain. Zooplankton work their way up through shrimp, small fish, and ultimately, larger species such as dolphins and sharks.”

Greenpeace released shocking photos obtained under the Freedom of Information ACT (FOIA) that show graphic evidence of the destruction done to sea life in the Gulf by the 2010 BP oil disaster. The horrible images include oil-covered endangered sea turtles, sperm whales and dolphins. Greenpeace’s research director said, “These photos are a grim reminder of the real damage that reckless oil corporations cause and also remind us never to stop pushing for transparency and accountability from Big Oil and the government that supposedly regulates its activities.”

Previous oil spills dating back decades have shown long term effects. Oysters, clams and mangrove forests have still not recovered from the 1979 Ixtoc-1 oil disaster in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche and herring fisheries have still not recovered from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska.

In addition to environmental carnage, there is mounting evidence of criminal malfeasance from the oil behemoth. It appears as though Doug Suttles, a senior BP executive, deliberately lied to reporters when he said that BP’s oil well was leaking about 1,000 barrels of oil a day. (We now know that the spill averaged more than 50,000 barrels per day throughout the three months). According to the company’s internal models, they knew that the well was leaking many times the amount they publicly indicated.

Documents obtained by The Huffington Post indicate that Kurt Mix, a former BP engineer, shared information with more senior BP executives during the spill, including a senior vice president, Jonathan Sprague, who formerly managed BP’s Gulf of Mexico operations.

Federal investigators have charged Mix with obstruction of justice for destroying text messages discussing far higher flow estimates than BP revealed publicly. Mix faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, and prosecutors will likely use the possibility of a heavy sentence to coerce him to testify against more senior officials at BP. Mix is free on a $100,000 bond following an initial court appearance in Houston. Mix resigned from BP in January.

The email evidence indicates that senior BP executives knew that the ruptured oil well was spewing far more oil than they publicly stated.  According to emails between Rob Marshall, manager of BP’s sub-sea operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Gary Imm, a deepwater project manager, and Sprague, their own models approximated the volume of the leak to be approximately 82,000 barrels per day. These emails make it abundantly clear that this information was not meant to be shared with anyone.

“A failure to report the extent of the flow rate — that would be a slam-dunk on willful misconduct, I think,” said Jamison Colburn, an environmental law professor at Penn State University and former enforcement litigator for the EPA.

The 2010 spill must also be understood in the context of BP’s long history of corporate malfeasance. As reported by EcoWatch.org, the spill in the Gulf of Mexico was not the first time BP tried to conceal the facts about an oil rig blow-out. In September 2008, one of BP’s drilling operations in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Baku, Azerbaijan suffered the same fate as the Deepwater Horizon in 2010.

The crux of the cover-up concerns the company’s use of cement (mixed with nitrogen to speed up drying), which was known to have failed in the Caspian sea disaster, making the blow-out preventers useless. BP also failed to notify the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) about the failure of the cement.

“We have laws that make it illegal to hide this kind of information,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance and senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council. “At the very least, these are lies by omission. When you juxtapose their knowledge of this incident upon the oil company’s constant and persistent assurances of safety to regulators, investigators and shareholders, you have all the elements to prove that their concealment of the information was criminal.”

If BP knew about the failure of the cement, the company is guilty of negligent homicide.

In 2009, BP’s Vice-President for operations in the Gulf, David Rainey, testified before Congress saying the quick-dry cement caps will prevent a deep water disaster.

Stefanie Penn Spear, editor of EcoWatch.org, says that BP’s hiding evidence ultimately led to, “The biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It entirely turned the Gulf Coast economy upside down and threatened—and continues to threaten—the health and livelihoods of the people in the Gulf region.”

According to EcoWatch.org, the facts in the Caspian Sea oil rig explosion were kept silent due to “pay-offs, threats, political muscle and the connivance of the Bush Administration’s State Department, Exxon and Chevron.” The evidence implicates top BP executives in a criminal cover-up that proved deadly. Les Abrahams, a BP executive in Baku in the 1990s, said up to $75 million in bribes were paid to Azeri officials in Baku. Abrahams indicated that BP’s CEO and Chairman Lord Browne paid the bribe personally.

Greenpeace sent a letter to prosecutors at the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder, copied to the chairs of the Congressional Judiciary Committees. The letter states, in part: “We’re writing today to state clearly our conviction that any resolution of the [BP] disaster short of full criminal prosecution of all responsible parties will be a dereliction of duty by your department and a betrayal of the trust placed in this administration by American citizens.”

BP is reaping the bitter harvest of its misdeeds. More arrests are highly likely including senior ranking BP executives. In addition to prison terms for some senior executives, the company will have to pay massive unprecedented fines.

BP’s greed is what caused the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon therefore it is only fitting that the punishment be commensurate with the company’s massive earnings. BP made more than $25 billion in profits in 2011, so the penalties must be significant if they are to set a meaningful precedent and serve as a powerful deterrent.

Federal environmental statutes mandate fines of up to $1,000 for every barrel of oil spilled into public waters. But if federal prosecutors are able to prove in court that BP officials covered up the magnitude of the spill, criminal convictions would likely cost the company more than four times that amount. Under federal law, if a company is demonstrated to have engaged in “willful misconduct” in relation to an oil spill, the penalties can more than quadruple, to $4,300 per barrel.

According to Robert Verchick, an environmental law professor at Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans, these claims could result in penalties and fines totaling $60 billion.

“There is still the potential that BP could get walloped pretty hard,” Verchick said.

Let all be warned, there can be a staggering cost to irresponsible business.


Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Greenboard (the network for young environmentalists)
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthewshttps://thegreenmarketoracle.com/
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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  1. Life on Earth is under threat. Damage to the Earth is being caused at an alarming rate and there is no legal framework to prevent this. But next month in June, leaders from around the globe will be at the RIO+20 Earth Summit discussing the Earth’s future – we can make them put people and planet above profit.

    As it currently stands there is no international law against ecocide. Making ecocide the 5th International Crime Against Peace will protect our environment and make those who destroy it criminally liable. Our leaders have the chance to fundamentally change the way our Earth is protected.

    This crucial summit provides us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We can make our leaders listen to our demands for change. Let’s show them that ecocide is a grave crime and that this must be put into international law. Sign this petition and share it with all your friends!

  2. Thanks, Richard for this insightful and comprehensive article on BP and the Gulf Oil spill disaster. I have been following the events since the explosion of the Oil Platform, and am amazed but not surprised that BP has thus far “gotten off” so lightly in footing the real cost of the clean-up bill.

    The truth is that to bring the Gulf ecosystem back to it’s former pre-spill self may take many decades. Many of the repercussions of the spill remain to be identified, let alone remediated. More scientific, economic and social studies need to be made to eventually and truly identifiy the real cost and responsibility that should be shouldered by BP.


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