BP gets off easy: Judge cuts maximum fine for Gulf disaster by billions

A maximum fine of $13.7 billion is good news compared to what it could have been

Published January 16, 2015 2:53PM (EST)


BP is responsible for spilling 3.19 millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon Spill, a federal judge ruled Thursday, setting the most official figure we'll ever get for the 2010 disaster and leaving the company liable for a maximum of $13.7 billion in potential fines.

It's a hefty price, but, compared to how things could have gone, the ruling lets BP off the hook for billions of dollars more in penalties. Last September, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled that the oil company committed "gross negligence" and "willful misconduct" in the lead-up to the spill, making them eligible for fines of $4,300 per barrel spilled, the maximum allowable under the Clean Water Act.

BP, which is currently appealing that decision, has maintained that it spilled only 2.45 million barrels; Barbier's decision represents a compromise, of sorts, between that and the federal government's much higher estimate of 4.19 million, which would have resulted in a fine as high as $18 billion. “There is no way to know with precision how much oil discharged into the Gulf of Mexico,” Barbier wrote in his ruling, and the evidence from both parties was “voluminous, dense, highly technical, and conflicting.”

"There is no dispute that BP lied about the amount of oil that flowed from the well," Barbier wrote -- the company plead guilty to as much -- however, he added, "it has not been shown that BP’s flow rate misrepresentations delayed the capping of the well or otherwise adversely affected source control."

We still don't know how much BP will end paying, in total, in fines and penalties surrounding the spill; speaking with the New York Times, David M. Uhlmann, a former federal prosecutor of environmental crimes, called the ruling "a major victory for BP" and predicted that the final penalty for Clean Water Act violations will be around $10 billion. The company says it's paid $27 billion in clean-up and damage claims since the spill.

The ultimate damage that the spill caused, regardless of its size, has yet to become fully clear, either. While Geoff Morrell, BP's senior vice president of U.S. communications and external affairs, wrote an impassioned editorial for Politico claiming, absurdly, that "No, BP Didn't Ruin the Gulf," news continues to roll out about the spill's lasting impacts.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Bp Clean Water Act Deepwater Horizon Epa Gulf Oil Spill