The civil trial over the disastrous 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico begins today in New Orleans. BP is facing civil fines of up to $17.6 billion, which would be the largest civil fine in history.
As Rachel Maddow notes in the video above, it is rare for cases of this type to actually go to trial. Settlements are far more common. NOLA.com has a good roundup of reports on the final efforts to reach a settlement. The New York Times reported Sunday on what a settlement could look like:
"The plan, worth a total of $16 billion, would limit the fines paid by BP under the Clean Water Act to $6 billion, a proposal that could help reduce its tax liability, said one person briefed on the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"BP would also pay $9 billion in penalties to cover damages to natural resources as well as the cost of restoration, that person said. The remaining $1 billion would be set aside in a fund that could be tapped if unanticipated environmental damages related to the spill developed.
I think the evidence is strong enough that BP will lose if no settlement is reached and the trial process is allowed to continue. And since some people like to say that corporations are people, I liked how Maddow explained how the dollar amount for the fines were determined.
"If you, personally, took a boat out to federal waters off the US coast and you dumped a barrel of oil into the water, there is a specific dollar amount that would cost you for polluting the ocean like that. The Clean Water Act says if you just demonstrated basic, ordinary negligence when you dumped your barrel of oil into the ocean, that barrel would cost you $1,100 as your pollution fine. If your actions were worse, if they were more reckless than ordinary negligence, then the fine goes up. The Clean Water Act lets you be fined up to $4,300 for dumping that one barrel of oil in the ocean.
Multiply that $4,300 times the estimated 4.1 million barrels BP spilled into the Gulf and you get the largest civil fine in history. And I hope they have to pay it all. Fines like this are not just a way to try and help fix what was broken. They are also intended to be deter other companies from allowing similar disasters to occur. If the oil industry is not penalized significantly when they mess up, what incentive is there for other companies to not cut corners that would lead to similar disastrous results?
For a reminder of how huge this disaster was or how much it influenced the country at the time, look back at my list of the best writing on the BP oil spill. I compiled some of the best reporting, essays and commentary on the event and it is just as tragic and interesting now as it was almost three years ago.