Over two years after the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 oil rig workers, and sent 4.9 million barrels of toxic crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, it seems that BP is finally ready to face the music. Reuters reports that BP is ready to plead guilty in exchange for a waiver of future prosecution on the charges. The London-based company has been in talks with the Justice Department and U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission, and multiple anonymous sources say a plea deal may be announced as soon as Thursday.
First things first, let’s heave a huge sigh of relief that BP will not be able to avoid criminal charges. They will go down in history as the company ultimately responsible for this tragedy, the full consequences of which we may never know. According to the sources cited by Reuters, a guilty plea will likely force BP to pay record breaking fines. As of right now, the largest criminal penalty in the U.S. is held by Pfizer Inc, which paid a $1.3 billion fine in 2009 for a marketing fraud.
But if you think that this guilty plea will mean justice has been served, you’re wrong. A billion dollars is a drop in the bucket to BP. The company enjoyed $24 billion in profits last year alone. Rest assured, BP wants this plea deal to go through. Unlike an individual, BP can’t be sent to jail for its crimes. It can’t be forced to look its thousands of victims in the eye. Millions if we include the marine, bird and animal species decimated by the oil spill. Most importantly, BP wants this deal to go through because it exonerates it from further responsibility. If, next year, we discover some massive, unpredictable consequence of the oil spill, BP would be completely immune from any further criminal penalties.
Update [5:12 ET]: BP has agreed to plead guilty to 14 criminal counts and will pay $4.5 billion over five years in a settlement with the Justice Department. In addition, the company will pay $525 million over three years to settle claims with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which said the company concealed information from investors. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also announced a separate 23-count criminal indictment — including charges of seaman’s and involuntary manslaughter — against the two top-ranking BP supervisors on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. So it looks like a few BP execs will do some jail time, a surprising development.
The only good news is that settling on criminal charges won’t exempt BP from further penalties in a civil suit already filed by the U.S. Justice Department. In an August filing, the Justice Department said “reckless management” of the Macondo well “constituted gross negligence and willful misconduct” which it intended to prove at a civil trial set to begin in New Orleans in February 2013.
For the sake of the Gulf, the people who died, the thousands of families who lost their businesses or have become sick, and the countless animals who paid the price with their life, we can only hope that that trial will result in a similar guilty verdict.
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