Billions in Fines Don't Matter -- Here's How BP Should Be Punished for the Gulf Disaster
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This story was published as an op-ed in The New York Times.
Two years after a series of gambles and ill-advised decisions on a BP drilling project led to the largest accidental oil spill in United States history and the death of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, no one has been held accountable.
What is missing is the accountability that comes from real consequences: a criminal prosecution that holds responsible the individuals who gambled with the lives of BP's contractors and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. Only such an outcome can rebuild trust in an oil industry that asks for the public's faith so that it can drill more along the nation's coastlines. And perhaps only such an outcome can keep BP in line and can keep an accident like the Deepwater Horizon disaster from happening again.
BP has already tested the effectiveness of lesser consequences, and its track record proves that the most severe punishments the courts and the United States government have been willing to mete out amount to a slap on the wrist.
Prior to the gulf blowout, which spilled 200 million gallons of oil, BP was convicted of two felony environmental crimes and a misdemeanor: after it failed to report that its contractors were dumping toxic waste in Alaska in 1995; after its refinery in Texas City, Texas, exploded, killing 15, in 2005; and after it spilled more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil from a corroded pipeline onto the Alaskan tundra in 2006. In all, more than 30 people employed directly or indirectly by BP have died in connection with these and other recent accidents.
In at least two of those cases, the company had been warned of human and environmental dangers, deliberated the consequences and then ignored them, according to my reporting.
None of the upper-tier executives who managed BP — John Browne and Tony Hayward among them — were malicious. Their decisions, however, were driven by money. Neither their own sympathies nor the stark risks in their operations — corroding pipelines, dysfunctional safety valves, disarmed fire alarms and so on — could compete with the financial necessities of profit making.
Before the accident in Texas City, BP had declined to spend $150,000 to fix a part of the system that allowed gasoline to spew into the air and blow up. Documents show that the company had calculated the cost of a human life to be $10 million. Shortly before that disaster, a senior plant manager warned BP's London headquarters that the plant was unsafe and a disaster was imminent. A report from early 2005 predicted that BP's refinery would kill someone "within the next 12 to 18 months" unless it changed its practices.
Such explicit flirtation with deadly risk was undertaken as part of Mr. Browne's effort while chief executive to expand BP as quickly as possible. Mr. Browne relentlessly cut costs, including on maintenance and safety. Then he hastily assembled a series of acquisitions and mergers between 1998 and 2001 that added tens of thousands of employees, blurred chains of command and wrought chaos on his operations. His methods — and the demands of Wall Street — became overly dependent on quantitative measures of success at the expense of environmental and human risk.