There Will Be Damage

Twenty billion dollars. The amount BP agreed to put in escrow is more than 250 times the company’s maximum obligation under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. It is a remarkable sum to get a corporation to disgorge before there has been any formal finding of guilt. But is it enough?

While it is commendable that the people of the Gulf Coast will be guaranteed compensation, there is a risk that BP’s voluntary participation in the fund will allow it to avoid what should be even higher liability costs. The Obama Administration insists that the $20 billion is not a cap, yet that is how it seems to be viewed by many in the financial markets, which reacted to the announcement with a degree of relief.

Obama is so eager for a win that he may have left money on the table. The fact that BP agreed to the $20 billion figure without much of a fight suggests that he could have gotten more. Another drawback: keeping the amount within BP’s comfort zone allowed the company to appear to be noble in cooperating, when it would have been preferable to see it squealing about an “unreasonable” demand. BP should be feeling more pain.

I also worry that BP’s acquiescence might cause the feds to go easier on the company in the criminal investigation of the gulf disaster. BP is already on probation in connection with criminal charges stemming from its previous recklessness in Alaska and at its Texas City refinery. Another conviction should get it debarred from receiving new drilling licenses or contracts from the federal government, and it would pave the way to huge payouts in the inevitable civil litigation.

The $20 billion deal is also less than fully satisfying because it applies to BP alone. The current mess in the gulf may be the doing of BP (and perhaps Transocean and Halliburton), but the Congressional testimony just given by top executives raises new concerns about other deepwater wells.

Corporate solidarity fell by the wayside as the big shots from Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips distanced themselves from BP. Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil was especially blunt about BP’s screw-ups,  seeking perhaps to drive down the company’s stock price further and facilitate a rumored takeover bid.

Yet what was even more amazing was the admission by the executives that, four decades after the 1969 Santa Barbara accident that demonstrated the risks of offshore drilling, their companies are still not in a position to handle such occurrences. “We are not well-equipped to deal with them,” Tillerson said matter-of-factly. “There will be damage.” This came on top of revelations by the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the spill response plans of the oil majors were cookie-cutter documents with outdated and irrelevant information.

All this is a far cry from the rosy scenarios and confident assurances that the industry has been peddling to the public for decades and selling to gullible (or indifferent) federal regulators. Here was the chief executive of the world’s largest oil corporation in effect admitting that it is helpless when something big goes wrong at one of its wells beneath the sea.

As satisfying as is to beat up on BP for the current catastrophe, the culpability extends to the entire industry. None of the oil giants took safety seriously, and by all rights they should all be digging into their corporate pockets to clean up the mess and compensate the people of the Gulf Coast.

One hundred billion dollars: that has a better ring to it.

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