BP's $4 billion settlement of criminal penalties stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is just the first step in holding the company legally accountable for the horrific damage it did to the Gulf Coast and for the deaths of 11 men on the rig. The question of civil penalties for environmental damage, which are expected to be far larger, has yet to be settled. Still, this is a significant moment.
BP is acknowledging responsibility for the lives lost when the rig exploded in April 2010. The company pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in New Orleans on Thursday to felony counts of misconduct or neglect in connection to the deaths of Adam Weise, Jason Christopher Anderson, Aaron Dale Burkeen, Donald Neal Clark, Stephen Ray Curtis, Gordon Lewis Jones, Roy Wyatt Kemp, Karl Dale Kleppinger Jr., Keith Blair Manuel, Dewey Allen Revette and Shane Michael Roshto.
That admission of guilt should bring a measure of solace to the families of the men who died.
It is imperative that President Obama and his administration also continue to aggressively pursue civil penalties for the spill. BP said in a news release Nov. 15 that it will "vigorously defend itself against remaining civil claims." The government should be just as vigorous in its pursuit of the civil case, as Attorney General Eric Holder promised.
Despite the guilty plea, the expectation is the company will argue that the oil spill was an accident. BP is trying to avoid being found "grossly negligent" under the Clean Water Act — and limit its liability to as little as $5 billion. A finding of gross negligence could increase the fines to $21 billion or more, based on the release of 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The finding, obviously, makes a huge difference to Louisiana and the other Gulf Coast states that suffered massive environmental and economic damage because of BP. Under the Restore Act, Congress has assured that the vast majority of BP's Clean Water Act fines will go to the five coastal states damaged by the spill.
Now the Obama administration needs to make sure that BP pays the highest penalties possible to undo some of the damage it has done.
Copyright The Times-Picayune. Distributed by The Associated Press.