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 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
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT