Five questions answered on BP's record fine

Criminal fine over Deepwater Horizon disaster.

A US court has approved the biggest ever criminal fine given in the US to British oil company, BP, for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. We answer five questions on the record breaking fine.

How much has BP been fined?

 BP will pay $4bn (£2.5bn) to the US Department of Justice, $1.26bn of which is a criminal fine. The sum also includes $2.4bn to be paid to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $350m to be paid to the National Academy of Sciences, over a period of five years.

BP will also pay $525m to the Securities and Exchange Commission over a period of three years.

Why has BP been handed this fine?

In November BP agreed to pay this amount and plead guilty to 14 criminal charges relating to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which was the biggest oil spill in US history. An explosion at the rig located in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in 11 workers loosing their life and an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil escaping into the sea. The disaster occurred in April but the well wasn’t permanently shut until September.   

What did BP officials say in response to the fine at the hearing?

Speaking at the hearing to the court, families of the dead and other victims of the disaster Vice President of BP America, Luke Keller, said:

"We - and by that I mean the men and the women of the management of BP, its board of directors, and its many employees - are deeply sorry for the tragic loss of the 11 men who died and the others who were injured that day," said Mr Keller.

"Our guilty plea makes clear, BP understands and acknowledges its role in that tragedy, and we apologise - BP apologises - to all those injured and especially to the families of the lost loved ones.

"BP is also sorry for the harm to the environment that resulted from the spill, and we apologise to the individuals and communities who were injured."

What other repercussions does BP face in relation to the Deepwater Horizon spill?

Currently, two BP workers have been indicted on manslaughter charges and an ex-manager has been charged with misleading Congress.

BP is also in the process of reaching a settlement with other firms such Transocean, the owner of the rig who was responsible for the safety valve, and Halliburton, who provided cementing services. A civil trial that will determine negligence is due to begin in New Orleans in February.

What has American officials said about the record fine?

As quoted by the BBC the US Attorney General Eric Holder said:

"Today's guilty plea and sentencing represent a significant step forward in the Justice Department's ongoing efforts to seek justice on behalf of those affected by one of the worst environmental disasters in American history."

He added: "I'm pleased to note that more than half of this landmark resolution - which totals $4bn in penalties and fines, and represents the single largest criminal resolution ever - will help to provide direct support to Gulf Coast residents as communities throughout the region continue to recover and rebuild."

Record fine over Deepwater Horizon disaster. Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder