Skip to main content

Make BP pay to restore Gulf

By David Yarnold, Special to CNN
March 5, 2013 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Yarnold: BP is rightly on trial, potentially facing judgment in tens of billions
  • He says even if BP settles, it will send signal that U.S. enforces clean air, water rules
  • He says pollution of Gulf spill still present three years later; BP must be accountable
  • Yarnold: Big judgment will fund Gulf coast restoration and send message

Editor's note: David Yarnold is the president of the National Audubon Society.

(CNN) -- BP showed up in court last week, finally, nearly three years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the hell it unleashed on the Gulf Coast. It's a huge, high-stakes trial, and BP is taking the beating it's earned. Here's what's at stake for America if there is a judgment: potentially tens of billions of dollars that will be used to create jobs while restoring some of our most productive and vulnerable natural places.

Whether the trial results in a decision or a settlement, the outcome will send a signal about how serious this country is about enforcing its common-sense rules that guarantee clean air and waters.

BP and its partners have already confessed to criminal negligence in the 2010 blowout that killed 11 men and gushed nearly 5 million barrels of oil. Every part of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, from the deep-sea corals to dolphins to migratory birds, was affected. Gulf Coast residents suffered billions of dollars in economic losses, with effects that rippled across the country.

David Yarnold
David Yarnold

And despite those slick commercials that assure you all is well and then invite you to spend your tourism dollars on the Gulf Coast, the disaster is still unfolding. Last summer, scientists found traces of BP's oil and dispersant in the eggs of migratory white pelicans nesting all the way up in Minnesota. Oil is still present on the Gulf's beaches, in the marshes and under the water. It is working its way through the food chain, so it will be years before we understand the full extent of the disaster.

BP's billions at stake as courtroom showdown starts

Just Wednesday, in fact, the Gulf Restoration Network documented a fresh rash of tarballs on a Louisiana beach known as Elmer's Island -- a spot that gets re-oiled every time a storm stirs up BP's submerged goo. We're nearly three years in, and there's no end in sight.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



That's why our justice system must hold BP and other polluters fully responsible under the law for the worst offshore oil disaster in history. How much could BP end up paying? BP is liable for up to $17.6 billion in penalties under the Clean Water Act if it is found grossly negligent. (And if this isn't gross negligence, it's hard to imagine what is.) Add to that figure the potential for tens of billions more in fines under the Oil Pollution Act.

This much is clear: The rules were put in place to deter and, if needed, to penalize the offenders. The Deepwater Horizon was the kind of disaster that was envisioned when the full force of these penalties was contemplated. Those penalties -- and nothing short -- are the fair outcome.

It wasn't surprising to see BP's stock rise when it agreed to an unprecedented $4.5 billion in criminal fines. The market was saying, in essence: Guys, it could have been a lot worse.

BP claims it now leads the way on safety

So we know that some amount of penalties -- a staggering amount by normal standards -- has already been "priced in" to BP's value. So, this isn't about whether BP will continue to be an ATM for shareholders. It will be. And we're not saying that there shouldn't be drilling in the Gulf Coast. We're saying that even megacorporations need to play by the rules.

Families 'pleased' with BP settlement
Transocean to pay $1.4B in fines

If Justice Department lawyers agree to a weak settlement, the burden of rebuilding from this disaster will be transferred from a foreign corporation to American taxpayers. Worse, it will send a message to polluters that we don't take seriously our air, water, wildlife, communities or economic health.

What's the difference between a $15 billion settlement and a $35 billion dollar judgment? The ability to rebuild the Louisiana wetlands -- America's delta-- for generations to come. A healthy, productive Gulf Coast where people and wildlife thrive. The principle that if you break it, you buy it.

Families of killed rig workers react to BP settlement

Under the terms of the RESTORE Act -- passed last year with historic bipartisan support -- 80% of Clean Water Act civil penalties will go back to restore the environment and economies of the Gulf Coast states. That's right and fair. We don't love how the states want to spend every dollar. But this is what a grand political bargain looks like, in case we've forgotten.

Two weeks ago, we and our partners hand-delivered more than 133,000 petitions to the Department of Justice, calling for full and complete accountability under the law for BP and its partners. The point of the petitions was pretty straightforward: These rules matter to Americans, and everyone needs to play and -- in this case -- pay fully.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Yarnold.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1842 GMT (0242 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0035 GMT (0835 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT