As we begin week two of BP’s trial in New Orleans, I can’t help but think back to the earliest days of the spill when oil spewed uncontrolled from the depths of the ocean and snaked its way toward shore.
I was at Incident Command in Mobile, Ala., when people were just starting to realize how serious that spill was going to be. The command center housed hundreds of people, from local elected officials to Coast Guard officers to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And of course, BP was there en masse.
It was a surreal experience, but one of my most vivid memories of that time was the look on the faces of the BP employees. It was a cross between disbelief and sheer panic. Looking into their eyes, you could tell that they literally had not thought this type of disaster could ever occur. They were really scared.
But by the end of the summer, those looks were gone. They were replaced by perfect sound bites, slick slogans and promises to “make it right.” And when the well was capped after 87 days, the story faded in most of the country, replaced by commercials about the Gulf being better than ever.
In the past three years, BP has spent inordinate amounts of time and money shirking responsibility, pointing fingers at others and downplaying the seriousness of the disaster. Now is the time for BP to be held responsible.
I’ve been waiting nearly three years for this trial. And I thought I would feel some sense of satisfaction when it finally started, but I don’t. I just can’t take pleasure in the public flogging of a company, even though BP deserves every minute of it.
Although I believe that BP must be held accountable to the full extent of the law and that they will and should be found grossly negligent, I also remember that they never meant for this to happen. BP thought that the lucrative payoff of drilling in deep water was worth the risk.
That’s why this trial must send a message about the seriousness of the risks involved when you drill in our waters.
If BP had taken these risks seriously, they never would have done things like list the Arctic-dwelling walrus as a species of concern in their planning and response documents or included the names of dead people as their response experts in the Gulf. Their arrogance and disregard for the people and natural resources of the Gulf led to this disaster.
A lot of people are asking how much BP owes the Gulf, as if there is some magical dollar amount that will make the last three years less painful or the next 20 somehow perfect.
I can’t answer that question. I don’t believe in bleeding BP for the sake of revenge, and I know that no amount of money is going to restore the Gulf without the collective commitment of the citizens, elected officials and community leaders of the region and the entire country to use the money wisely to restore the resources we rely on for our economy and our way of life.
That being said, there still must be a reckoning. Whatever the final payout ends up being, it needs to hurt the company bad enough to be a warning to everyone who wants to drill in our waters that the risks are real and serious.
The Department of Justice must send a message that when you make a mistake, you must take responsibility—even when you never meant for it to happen. We all have to learn that lesson as individuals, and we should expect nothing less from our corporations.
BP has vast resources, with profits in the billions every quarter. The fine BP ultimately pays must reflect not only the seriousness of their transgressions, it must hurt them enough to serve as a lesson to all those who drill in our waters.