Jeff Sybertz ’13
This past week, British Petroleum (BP) pled guilty to criminal misconduct and agreed to pay more than $4.5 billion in damages and fines for their role in the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. The spill, which was the worst accidental oil spoil in history and the worst environmental disaster in US history, caused billions of dollars of damage to the Gulf region and killed 11 oilrig workers. It took nearly 87 days to stop the oil from flowing into the ocean. Now, after more than two and a half years, BP has finally admitted criminal responsibility for their actions and agreed to pay the biggest criminal fine in American history. Although this case took more than two years to settle and many people’s livelihoods were ruined, the fact that the US government had the capacity and the courage to hold a major corporation accountable for its actions provides justice for those most affected by the spill and also sets an encouraging precedent for the future that says corporations are not immune to criminal prosecution.
This oil spill caused untold amounts of physical, emotional, economic, and environmental damage from which the citizens and ecology of the Gulf Coast region are still recovering. Not only were 11 innocent oilrig workers killed, but also the careers of many Gulf Coast residents, whose livelihoods were largely dependent on fishing and tourism, were ruined. Although some have been able to come back to work over the past year, many people were permanently affected, as a number of businesses were closed and people were forced to leave the region.
In September 2011, a US government led investigation concluded that BP was responsible for the spill due to cost-cutting measures and a lack of safety regulations that were systemic throughout all of BP’s operations. Moreover, BP conducted its own investigation and even they said they had made mistakes that led to the spill. However, government led investigations into the activities of corporations are nothing new, but the fact that the government eventually found BP criminally responsible for these inexcusable actions is promising for a future in which corporations have acquired more and more power and have the ability to ruin so many lives.
Corporate criminal responsibility for environmental and human rights violations is a growing field of international and domestic law. Multinational corporations have the amount of power and resources to severely alter the political, economic, social, and ecological environments in which they do business. They also have the amount of power to convince governments that they are indispensable to the survival of the government’s economy, even if they may be committing a few violations or are not following certain regulations. In the past, governments may have conducted investigations into the practices of a corporation in response to their constituents’ grievances but those investigations would frequently lead to a small fine or a small slap on the wrist. However, the US government saw this case as an example of such heinous corporate manipulation and negligence that a slap on the wrist would not suffice.
Even though it may have been slightly delayed, $4 billion to settle criminal claims and another $500 million to the SEC in fines shows that justice has finally been done. No amount of money can bring back the lives of those 11 men or the untold amount of suffering caused by the loss of so much economic activity. However, much of this money will be used to help rebuild the coastline and hopefully restore some sort of normalcy in the region.
More importantly, the precedent set by this case will make corporations think twice before using cost-cutting measures or skimping on safety regulations to make a profit. Too often in this increasingly globalized world, corporations think they are above the law and, prior to this ruling, they were right. However, there is now a developing norm that says corporations can be criminally responsible for their actions. Granted this case was a blatant example of corporate manipulation that devastated an economically rich region of the most powerful country in the world. Will this stop other multinational corporations from devastating developing countries’ environments or exploiting foreign workers? Probably not. However, now the precedent exists and corporations cannot help but take notice.
The US government had the courage and the capability to criminally punish one of the largest oil companies in the world for gross negligence and manipulation. The leaders of BP thought they were immune from criminal responsibility for their actions. Now the company’s approval ratings are lower than ever and the Gulf Coast has $4 billion to invest in reinvigorating their region. Even though it took two and a half years, justice has finally been done.