Crime Pays for BP

It turns out crime pays. Big time. BP, the oil company responsible for what may become the largest oil spill of all time in the United States has been breaking the law, again and again. And each time, the company formerly known as British Petroleum has learned its lesson: Keep breaking the law. Corporations can get away with murder and environmental devastation, and make billions doing it.

For example, last year BP paid the largest penalty in the history of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for willful negligence that led to the death of 15 workers and the injury of 170 others in a March 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City. The fine amounted to $87.43 million.

That may sound like a lot, but BP made $163 billion in profits between 2001 and 2009, and another $5.6 billion in the first three months of 2010. Along the way, it paid fines for violating the law that totaled roughly $530 million, or one-third of 1 percent of the company’s profits over the same time period.

Energy DisasterThose financial penalties are so minor that BP routinely scrimps on safety, says oil worker safety advocate Chuck Hamel. In Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, BP oil workers have told Hamel they are expected to routinely falsify drilling rigs’ safety tests.

The reason? Because conducting a safety test–perhaps a test similar to the very one that might have averted the gargantuan Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico–means shutting down the rig. And shutting down means oil doesn’t flow for a few minutes. So, says Hamel, in order to make more money for BP, the world’s fourth-biggest corporation, these workers were told to routinely falsify their own safety reports and carry on drilling.

Now BP is the primary culprit in one of the biggest manmade disasters of all time. Thousands of fishermen will lose their livelihoods for years. The Gulf Coast’s tourism may get slammed. Maybe this time, BP will take a sizeable hit. Or will it? Currently, the maximum penalty BP could pay for this fiasco is $75 million. That’s roughly 1.3 percent of the profits it earned in January, February, and March of this year.

However, lawmakers have introduced bills raising the liability cap from $75 million to $10 billion. In Congress, this initiative has been dubbed the “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act.”

Even if lawmakers could muster the backbone to raise the penalty to $10 billion, would this prevent a Big Oil bailout? Probably not. The liability could run into the tens of billions of dollars if this spill hits Florida’s beaches and goes up the eastern shore. It could cost American taxpayers tens of billions more, on top of the $10 billion that BP may or may not pay.

And so we the people need to make sure Congress scraps any limit on liability–whether it’s $75 million or $10 billion–for oil companies that cause environmental and economic disasters. Lawmakers also need to stop making taxpayers clean up after oil companies. Otherwise, they will take greater and greater risks in oil exploration and we will all lose.

Given BP’s repeated criminal activity, our elected leaders should take a stand once and for all and make this criminal pay, no matter how high the cost. They should also vow to never accept oil money to finance their electoral bids. To do otherwise at this moment in history just makes them accomplices in one of the largest environmental crimes of all time.

Daphne Wysham is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the host of Earthbeat Radio. IPS is a community of public scholars and organizers linking peace, justice, and the environment in the U.S. and globally. www.ips-dc.org