By Raleigh Keagan, LABB Member Action Associate
After two years, over 200 million barrels of spilled oil (1), and countless economic, social and environmental affects, there is finally a number visible: $7.8 billion. While official numbers have yet to be agreed upon, and there are many claims still pending (including several with the US Government, which could prove to be the largest of all), the speculated settlement has been released and is now available to be subjected to public purview. According to an article on reuters.com, the projected payout would be earmarked to “…resolve economic, property and medical claims by more than 100,000 individuals and businesses.” (2)
The outcome of each claim is highly dependent upon the terminology and specific charges brought against BP. If they are convicted of gross negligence, for example, they could be held accountable for a potential $17.8 billion for violating the Clean Water Act alone.
But as residents of the Gulf know, it is not just about money. Financial reparations are surely needed- for the extensive medical, social, environmental (and so on) impacts caused. But there are quality of life factors that are not really addressed when a check is written. Sure, BP has mentioned a coastal restoration program. But their actions have not really held up to their words. Physical signs of restoration efforts by BP have yet to be seen. Drilling in the Gulf has actually increased since the disaster. According to a combined report from a myriad of agencies within the federal government, “we are now permitting at levels seen before the spill…” (3). Gulf residents are afraid they are once again hearing empty words and promises.
I myself recently received several tickets for turning right on red. While I was discouraged when I received these, I understand that these tickets are not simply meant as a punishment, but as an incentive to change my behavior. When driving around NOLA, I am now very cognizant of stopping at all red lights before I turn. It is my opinion that the BP settlement is acting something like a speeding ticket. Yes the corporation will pay for the damage they caused (though arguably the bill will not match the harm), but I believe the bigger question is did they learn anything from this experience? I fear the answer is no.
Negative financial incentives are supposed to encourage change, in a beneficial manner. They are supposed to show the accused party the error of their ways, and motivate them to explore alternative avenues that won’t cause harm. I fear this intended outcome has been lost on BP. We have not seen improvements in their “business-as-usual” tactics. We have not seen them change their practices of drilling wherever they can. We have not seen them take into consideration the negative externalities caused by their actions. I fear this settlement, even this whole trial, will not be a big enough wake up call to big oil.
So what to do? There are several ways of creating systemic change. The most effective method, history has shown us, is public dissent. If citizens, consumers, everyday Tom, Dick and Harrys (and Marys!) make it apparent they do not accept the practices of these large oil companies, then we will see change. Voting with your dollar is perhaps the loudest call you can make, and these profit-driven corporations will hear. Consistent, deafening cries from the public will force industry to change.
Another avenue is encouraging the supposed enforcement agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, to enforce regulations that are already in place. While many will argue we need more stringent limits and laws governing the operations of these companies, we need to start with the policies that are already in place. Adding more rules to a system that can’t even enforce the ones that already exist is like expecting a baby to run a marathon before they’ve even learned to walk properly.
The current BP trial is a step in the right direction, it is important to note that. But it is also important to recognize that it is far from the end all be all. We have a long way to go working with industry to make them accountable, transparent and “good neighbors”, as they claim to be. And just look at the disaster and destruction we had to experience before we were able to even get this far. With a little hope, and a lot of work, we will be able to foster the change and improvements so desperately needed throughout the Gulf and beyond.