Skip to main content

Make BP pay to restore Gulf

By David Yarnold, Special to CNN
updated 12:27 PM EST, Tue March 5, 2013
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
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT