The Feds Take BP (and others) to Court

The federal government today filed a lawsuit against BP and eight other defendants arising from the April, 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  The lawsuit asks for penalties under the federal Clean Water Act and for a judgment declaring that each of the defendants is liable for removal costs and damages under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA).

This lawsuit was not unexpected, but what’s interesting is its timing:  the federal government, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is still conducting a natural resource damages assessment under OPA and so probably does not yet have a bottom-line figure on what its removal costs and damages are.  But the government went ahead and is asking for a ruling that, whatever the bottom line number is, the defendants in this case are on the hook for it. It should also be noted that the damages assessment for the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 only recently concluded, which means the process accounting for the extent of the damage caused by the disaster could take some time. 

Another interesting thing is that Halliburton, the cement contractor on the Deepwater Horizon, and Cameron, the company that made the malfunctioning blowout preventer that was attached to the drilling rig, were not made defendants in the case.  From the plaintiff’s standpoint, it’s a good day when defendants decide to fight among themselves publicly about who is responsible for the plaintiff’s damages.  That could happen here if BP and the other defendants decide to bring Halliburton or Cameron into the lawsuit and the DOJ is also on record as saying defendants can always be added to the case.

Either way, today’s lawsuit will not be resolved quickly.  The defendants are sure to contest the volume of the spill, which is important in calculating Clean Water Act penalties, and the nature and degree of their responsibility for the spill and the resulting damages.  What is important to NRDC here is the simple principle that companies which are allowed to drill on the Outer Continental Shelf must be held fully responsible for oil spills from their drilling or production activities.  In the bigger picture, we need to decide as a nation whether the human, environmental and economic risks of Outer Continental Shelf drilling – including drilling off the coast of Alaska -- are worth feeding our national addiction to fossil fuels.