Vermont Law Top 10 Environmental Watch List 2015

BP Oil Spill ‘Gross Negligence’ Finding by Federal Court

In the wake of a 'gross negligence' finding against BP, some environmentalists advocate for a blanket moratorium on offshore drilling while others wait to see if the fines and penalties levied against BP will be enough to force the oil industry to build protective measures or abandon offshore drilling completely.
Image courtesy Wikipedia

In September 2014, a federal district court in Louisiana ruled that oil company BP acted with “gross negligence” in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Gross negligence—willful misconduct or reckless behavior, like speeding through a crowded pedestrian area or locking emergency exits in a public building—is an extreme and significant finding. In short, the trial court found that BP willingly ignored serious procedural errors and technical faults that were almost certain to result in disaster. While BP didn’t intentionally spill 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, it wantonly disregarded a variety of measures that ensured a disaster of such magnitude was almost a certainty.

BP has asked Federal District Court Judge Carl Barbier to reconsider his ruling, or even issue an order for a new trial. And despite the court’s ruling, other oil companies have moved forward with offshore drilling plans in the Artic and the East Coast of the U.S.

Yet, despite little change in the way oil companies like BP do business, the U.S. government is moving ahead with plans to allow offshore drilling in the Arctic and to lift the moratorium on drilling off the East Coast of the United States.

At the end of August, Shell submitted a plan for oil exploration off the coast of Alaska. Despite the Arctic’s dangerous conditions, the company has already invested eight years and nearly $6 million in exploration. The company faced a number of setbacks, including the grounding of a rig during a 2012 storm, but the region has the potential to produce millions of barrels a day.  Alaska’s recently amended tax regime provides incentives to Shell and other oil companies seeking to drill in dangerous and ecologically sensitive arctic waters. The U.S. Department of Interior, guardian of most of the Arctic’s oil-rich region, will conduct an environmental impact study in anticipation of drilling before the spring ice melts.

The U.S. government may also open opportunities for drilling off the East Coast. A moratorium on drilling in the Atlantic ends in 2017 and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) recently released a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement considering “geological and geophysical activity” from Delaware to Florida. Though the impact statement does not include oil and gas development, the BOEM will address the possibility of opening the Atlantic to drilling in the next few years.

Environmentalists charge that the activities related to the oil spill in the gulf—resulting from the Deepwater Horizon explosion and BP’s gross negligence—are reckless but routine in the offshore drilling industry. In the next year the Department of the Interior will have to decide whether to trust the Arctic or other coastal ecosystems to oil companies. While some advocate for a blanket moratorium on offshore drilling, others wait to see if the fines and penalties levied against BP will be sufficient to force the industry to build truly protective measures—or abandon offshore drilling completely as simply too dangerous, and costly, to pursue.