A sea otter swimming near the Exxon Valdez
There was a great deal of excitement in the courtroom across the street from Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf restoration office during BP’s first week at trial. Objection after objection from BP’s legal team have been over ruled by Judge Barbier, a culture of BP putting profit before safety has steadily emerged, and BP has found itself in perhaps one of the world’s largest finger pointing game with Halliburton and Transocean. The trial has allowed everyone the opportunity to begin learning exactly why 11 men died and oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon caught fire and sank. But as we learn about the past, we must also think about our future.
We know the people of the Gulf Coast and the coastal and marine ecosystems of the Gulf could feel the effects of the BP oil disaster for years, maybe even decades. That’s why it’s critical that however BP settles up , either in or out of court, the resolution of this disaster must keep options open for addressing any damages that may not be discovered until well into the future. One way to do this is to include a reopener clause in any form of a resolution.
A reopener clause is a sweetener to facilitate resolution of the case. It represents an additional sum of money that may be accessed in the future, thus “reopening” the issue, but only if additional injuries not known at the time of the settlement manifest. It has advantages for both sides. With a reopener clause, the federal and state parties can rest assured that if any environmental problems from the spill show up later, the government isn’t left empty handed. The polluter, BP, can seek comfort in the fact that it won’t be held accountable for potential injuries that have yet to be proven or even hypothesized at this time. This may sound logical and simple, but the devil is in the details.
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Oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, with a drilling rig in the background. Photo by Brandon Shuler
Passed in July 2012, The RESTORE Act directs money from penalties in response to the BP oil disaster to the Gulf Coast, but has only been a written law – a promise to the citizens of the region – until now. A newly announced $1.4 billion settlement between the Department of Justice and Transocean Ltd will provide some real green to the RESTORE Act and help to begin the restoration of the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal and marine resources.
Holding all parties responsible for their role in the BP oil disaster is imperative to provide some of the financing needed to restore the Gulf’s ecosystems and people. Transocean will plead guilty to violating the Clean Water Act and pay over a billion dollars in fines.
It is great news that a combined $300 million from the settlement will be directed to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and National Academy of Sciences. Using and improving science is extremely important not only in recovering from disasters, but in gaining a better understanding of the Gulf’s resources so we can provide better protection for these resources so critical to the culture and livelihoods of the Gulf Coast and the Nation.
This new settlement is a great step forward, but the biggest step is yet to come. BP still needs to be held fully accountable and it’s unfortunate that we still have no resolution of civil and administrative claims. We deserve nothing less than a trial resolution that recognizes and compensates the people of the Gulf for all that has been lost.
As we move forward, we must not forget the off-shore environment, where this disaster began. Restoration of the Gulf requires an approach that addresses marine resources as well as coastal environments and Gulf communities.
We must focus our effort, energy and funding to restoration of our coastal and marine environments as well as our coastal communities if we are going to realize our vision of a vibrant and healthy Gulf region. Ocean Conservancy encourages everyone to continue to be involved in the restoration process and to work together to make sure all liable parties are held accountable and that we have a Gulf of Mexico stronger than before.