Four years ago, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig’s massive spill irreversibly changed the lives of many in the Gulf of Mexico — marine life and the surrounding communities alike. The day of, 11 rig workers died as millions of barrels of oil flooded the ocean. Since then, BP has spent more than $28 billion on cleanup and claims, pleading guilty to criminal charges along the way yet maintaining its position that Halliburton and Transocean, the rig operators, were primarily responsible for the accident.
This past Thursday, as presented in a report by the New York Times, a federal judge “for the first time bluntly rejected those arguments, finding that BP was indeed the primary culprit and that only it had acted with ‘conscious disregard of known risks.'” This newfound condemnation of gross negligence — an increased charge from its previous condemnation as mere “negligence” — could result in $18 billion of new civil penalties, almost quadruple the maximum Clean Water Act penalty for negligence and significantly more than the $3.5 billion the company had previously marked for penalties.
According to NYT, United States District Court Judge Carl J. Barbier articulated his reasoning in a 153-page decision, in which he found that “vital seals and stoppers were were left leaky along the casing of the well … while BP then skimped on tests that might have shown the problems caused by the shoddy work. When tests were run, the results were interpreted with optimism at best and dishonest at worst, and several critical decisions made by BP … [were] ‘primarily driven by a desire to save time and money, rather than ensuring that the well was secure.'”
Judge Barbier went on to find that Halliburton and Transocean had also acted with negligence, but concluded that only BP was, again, grossly negligent, identifying the percentage of blame as: 67 percent to BP, 30 percent to Transocean, and 3 percent to Halliburton.
But what does this potential fine mean? Well, first and foremost, BP is going to resurface as a shrunken giant of sorts. Second, other oil companies will undoubtedly rethink strategy moving forward, with a heightened standard and increased liability for the deepwater drilling. But the most important (and discouraging) takeaway might very well be that oil spills are largely, as mentioned above, irreversible.
National Geographic reached out to Robert Gramling, a sociologist at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, and co-author of the book Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America, who spoke to this end:
“If you live along the coast, anywhere from about Panama City, Florida, to [Louisiana’s] Plaquemines Parish, every time we have a tropical storm we get more oil. It’s still out there. Commercial shrimpers say there are areas that have not come back and areas where there’s still oil in the marshes.
“The real other lesson here that we learned with Exxon and with every big oil spill is that once you have the oil spilled in a marine environment, there’s almost nothing you can do about it—the skimming and the burning and the booming off and all of that. All of the thousands of boats BP had out there in the Gulf, those were for the media—just about useless.
“Virtually all of our efforts in terms of drilling for oil in the marine environment ought to go to prevention, because cleanup and recovery is virtually impossible.”
Need convincing? Earlier this year, the National Wildlife Foundation published a study that found 14 gulf species were still suffering from the spill.