Ruling In BP Civil Case Sets The Stage With Potential Additional Funds For Coastal Restoration

Sep 10, 2014

The Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire.
Credit United States Coast Guard / Wikimedia Commons

With a ruling finally in on the civil action suit against BP, both sides are looking ahead to what’s next. BP plans to appeal the decision, and plaintiffs are hoping to see some more money flowing from the oil giant to coastal restoration projects.

The ballroom of a New Orleans Hilton was packed with reporters in town for the Society of Environmental Journalists conference recently.

Geoff Morrell stepped to the podium. Morrell’s the spokesperson for BP — formerly known as British Petroleum — and he wanted to share a new narrative about the four years that have passed since the oil spill.

"The apocalyptic forecast of the death of the Gulf, the coastal economy, indeed the unique way of life here did not come to pass" said Morrell, quieting the reporters. Going on the offensive, he cross examined media coverage that predicted long term environmental damage along the Gulf Coast.

"The oil didn't make it to Tampa, let alone the beaches of Normandy. Gulf shrimp landings didn't take generations to rebound, they quickly returned to pre-spill levels. The spill didn't strike out Louisiana's Brown Pelicans."

But Morrell’s assertion that a naturally resilient coast, and a BP team quick to shoulder blame and clean up its mess equaled disaster averted, was not shared by the audience.

The following morning, news hit that BPs viewpoint wasn’t shared by the US district court judge in charge of the case, either.

By electing to charge BP with gross negligence, Federal Judge Carl Barbier opens the company up to as much as $18 billion in new civil penalties. The energy giant has already spent $28 billion in settling claims and cleanup costs.

By electing to charge BP with gross negligence, Federal Judge Carl Barbier opens the company up to as much as $18 billion in new civil penalties. The energy giant has already spent $28 billion in settling claims and cleanup costs.

One of the plaintiffs in the BP Case was the federal government.

United States Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says she’s watched the case closely. "We were happy to see the strength in his ruling," said Jewell. "We also know that the wheels of justice move slowly, and these are very complicated cases, and BP has already said they are planning to appeal."

Instead of relying on litigation, Secretary Jewel says she’d like to see more mitigation from the energy companies working in the Gulf. Specifically inserting coastal protection and restoration measures as preconditions to activities like drilling for oil. She says a healthy marsh helps them plan, too.

"Companies look for clarity and certainty, they want to be able to develop, they want to know the time frame. So if we can make that predictable for them, and we can make that dollar for mitigation go farther by hitting areas that are really really important, for a variety of reasons, then I think we both win."

Natalie Peyronnin is with the DC-based non-profit Environmental Defense Fund. She’s the Science Policy Director for the Mississippi River Delta Restoration. Instead of appealing the court ruling, Peyronnin says BP should set an example by making that money available as soon as possible.

"To pay the fines, to understand the damages that was caused by their grossly negligent actions, to pay the money for restoration and get it moving and get it started, so they really truly will make it right in the Gulf."

Peyronnin is hoping some of BPs billions of dollars in claims and fines will help fund Louisiana’s 2017 Master Plan for coastal restoration. She helped draft the $50 billion plan, and says oil companies should support it.

"The effects of climate change on their infrastructure, the effects of land loss on their infrastructure, that pipelines are exposed — their risks are getting higher. They need restoration just as much as everybody else does."

Last week’s ruling placed 67 percent of the blame for the Macondo well explosion on BP. 30 percent went to Transocean. And,Halliburton, which recently announced a billion-dollar settlement for its part in the disaster, was responsible for the remaining 3 percent of the damages.

The federal trial includes three phases. Judge Barbier has yet to rule on the amount of oil spilled into the Gulf, part of a second phase of the trial that happened last fall.

The third and last phase will begin in January, 2015. That ruling pertains to penalties related to the federal Clean Water Act.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Kabacoff Family Foundation and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.