BP to pay for "gross negligence"

The US is holding BP accountable.

According to Reuters, the US Justice department has recently confirmed that it will hold BP accountable for gross negligence. This recent sharpening of the DoJ’s attitude towards BP’s responsibility in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill (the largest in history) foreshadows steeper than predicted reparations; if BP is found to have been guilty of misconduct, under the Clean Water Act, it faces charges of up to $21 billion (four times what was previously predicted) - on top of punitive and compensatory damages. As Reuters notes, both BP and Transocean ltd. (owner of the platform) were found guilty of cutting corners by the government-filed report:

Specifically, errors made by BP and Swiss-based Transocean Ltd, owner of the Deepwater Horizon platform, in deciphering a key pressure test of the Macondo well are a clear indication of gross negligence, the Justice Department said.

"That such a simple, yet fundamental and safety-critical test could have been so stunningly, blindingly botched in so many ways, by so many people, demonstrates gross negligence," the government said in its 39-page filing.

As noted by an Economist blog in 2010, the Horizon debacle stands as “one way to price in externalities”; the oil spill highlights the more obvious negative side-effects of our reliance on fossil fuels, and is – for now – the only way that oil companies’ income will reflect (an infinitesimal part) of their harm to society. Cynics at the time commented that the US government is far too shortsighted to hold BP accountable, and that the incident would soon blow over (in sharp contrast to the oil that still lingers in the Gulf). Two years down the line, Obama can only be praised for ensuring that big business is not above the Clean Water Act. The DoJ’s perseverance will serve as a glaring reminder that the oil industry is shirking some serious debits and is not as profitable as it appears.

It’s a shame there is no Clean Skies Act to hasten the market’s demand for renewable energy.

(On that note, BrainPickings reminds us that 35 years ago today, the Voyager 1 was launched to explore the solar system. Follow the link to watch an animated version of Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot. It kind of puts things into perspective.)

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.