Guilty Planet

This month, the U.S. Justice Department opened criminal and civil investigations into the BP oil spill. Will BP executives go to jail?

The Times has a nice piece on the potential 3-15 years BP executives could serve, suggesting that mid to senior-level managers at BP are most at risk of criminal prosecution for “gross negligence”. We know BP’s CEO Tony Hayward has no fear of jail time and most people I speak to are very skeptical that any of the BP executives will spend time in prison, despite this Facebook page with more than 1300 members calling to arrest Tony Hayward NOW.

The ecological impacts are currently incalculable but the platform explosion killed 11 platform workers, injured 17 others, and here is the tally of wildlife deaths as of today (presented in an excessively mild format):

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To put things in perspective, last year, a man in Washington state was fined $160,000 and sentenced to 30 days in jail for intentionally mislabeling 136,000 pounds of turbot from China as much higher priced U.S. halibut. Also last year, financial mismanager Bernie Madoff received a 150-year prison sentence. An 18-year-old from Texas who graffitied $7,300 worth of property got eight years in prison. But the people responsible for an oil spill that killed 11 people, injured 17 others, and will do at least $20 billion in damages won’t go to jail?

Comments

  1. #1 Treespeed
    June 23, 2010

    Why isn’t this sort of environmental disaster prosecuted in a similar fashion to a Forest Fire Arson?
    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2010/01/death-penalty-sought-for-man-accused-of-setting-deadly-2003-wildfire-in-san-bernardino.html

  2. #2 BlindWatcher
    June 23, 2010

    “…18-year-old from Texas who graffitied $7,300 worth of property got eight years in prison….But the people responsible for an oil spill that killed 11 people… won’t go to jail?”

    I suppose the obvious difference that needs to be addressed in making this point is that the other cases were deliberate acts. The spray-painter intended the damage done. The execs at BP did not intend to kill anyone…

    There’s still a valid point to be made, I’m sure, but isn’t this one false?

  3. #3 skeptifem
    June 23, 2010

    Treespeed- if there is enough activism about this, it might be. It is hard to get these laws passed, because they punish the people who are part of the elite decision making portion of society.

  4. #4 J.T. Wenting
    June 24, 2010

    If they were to be sent to jail it would be the worst injustice in recent history (and that’s saying something).
    They’d be sent to jail for obeying the law, doing what the law tells them to do to the best of their abilities despite constant and active attempts to prevent them from doing so by US federal agencies from the coast guard to congress and the white house.

    But in the Obamanation I can indeed see it happening. There the rule of law is what the One says it is on any particular day after all.

  5. #5 Lyle
    June 24, 2010

    As pointed out no one at BP wanted the accident to happen or worked directly to cause it.A crime generally requires a willful act to cause it. In addition there is the dirty little secret about the US court system, its not big enough to prosecute all the crimes we have already. It has been this way since prohibition in the 1920s and likley before. You only get prosecuted if it is directly in the prosecutors interest to do so.

    The forest fire arson is a crime because a direct action was taken to cause it. Now if someone lied on this or that form to the government then you have perjury.
    More likley this is like more engineering disasters a series of small decisions each of which eats a bit out of the safety margin until things go boom.
    For example if the blowout preventer had worked then the cement jobs problems might not have been found. If the cement job had worked then the poor casing design or the number of spacers might not have been a problem…
    So if anything comes up it will be failure to be truthful on a government form or statement.

  6. #6 Alex.Besogonov
    June 24, 2010

    “As pointed out no one at BP wanted the accident to happen or worked directly to cause it.A crime generally requires a willful act to cause it.”

    Or a willful negligence.

  7. #7 Dunc
    June 24, 2010

    Sure – they’ll get the cell next to Warren Anderson.

    Sorry, did I say “cell”? I meant “luxury villa in the Hamptons”.

  8. #8 Rose Colored Glasses
    June 24, 2010

    If this ends up framed as civil wrongdoing, then lawyers will drag it out in civil court, and decades from now very little if anything will be paid in damages, and all costs will be passed on to consumers, so it won’t even be a cost of doing business.

    If this is framed as criminal wrongdoing, then executives will get the perp walks, bail hearings, motions to delay the trials for years, but eventually the executives will face a jury, but not of their peers, just ordinary people.

    Look how little real harm Bernie Madoff did, but got 150 years.

    If the feds apply the RICO statutes, we can ramrod BP execs through federal courts and have them convicted within a year. To set proper precedents, the first sentences should exceed 10,000 years. That will encourage the minions to cut deals, ratting out their buddies.

  9. #9 Guy
    June 24, 2010

    @#2 Blindwatcher,

    They deliberately cut-corners that in turn resulted in the disaster. That makes them guilty based what I understand about how the law is supposed to work.

    If you speed down the highway with reckless abandon and cause a pile-up that kills someone you can get charged with murder.

  10. #10 yogi-one
    June 24, 2010

    They have a system for working out the categories of violations that either directly or indirectly led to the disaster. “Serious” = “violations with a substantial probability of death or serious injury”. “Willful” = “violations committed with intentional disregard for employee safety and health”. “Egregrious willful” = “willful and flagrant violation”.
    http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2010/06/bp-violations-and-spills/

    In the civil trial there will be a lot of arguing about exactly what these terms mean, and exactly who committed the violations. Expect to see BP looking to sacrifice the lowest ranking workers first, much in the same way privates were convicted instead of generals for torturing people in Iraq.

    Also look to see a lot of dickering over the magnitude of fines, or any possible jail time, and nearly endless appeals of any decisions the courst do make. Look for somekind of payout maybe around the year 2020 or later.

    You want precedent? Bhopal, and Exxon Valdez (of course). Possibly Three Mile Island.

    In a nasty but prophetic sign of things to come, you have a New Orleans Federal judge who owns stock in Transocean and Halliburton overturn a presidential six-month moratorium on offshore drilling:
    http://motherjones.com/blue-marble/2010/06/judge-moratorium-case-stock-transocean

    You also have the Governor of Louisiana publicly advocating to get drilling started again off the coast of Louisiana as soon as possible.

    So here’s what you are going to get: delayed and diminished justice, and a push to get drilling again while we wait for delayed justice because the country supposedly needs the jobs the rigs provide. And the usual special-interest lobbies are going continue pumping millions of dollars into promoting the idea that America has no viable alternatives to oil and coal ready to come online now, so we we have no choice but to drill, baby, drill.

    The flat-earthers are also already starting to propagate the meme that environmentalists caused the spill by over-regulating the oil industry. Although this is obviously a lie, there’s a vocal movement of Americans that the Republicans play to that would take up the meme and vote for politicians who espouse that kind of logic.

    As much as we would all like the BP disaster to be a turning point for America to a cleaner, saner energy policy, and a chance to get effective regulation on the industries the MMS was supposedly set up to control, I think what we are actually seeing is the first of many large scale disasters to befall us while we argue about whether the conservatives or the liberals are to blame for it all.

    The media of course is interested in the controversy. “Left” Vs “Right” and giving “equal time” to flat-earthers is what WaPo and NYT are all about. And forget WSJ. Murdoch and co are simply interested in whatever increases their portfolio – which for now is to get the oil companies back on the drill and pump the stock price back up – the same thing Bobby Jindal knows he’ll get a handsome payoff for.

  11. #11 Kelly Clowers
    June 24, 2010

    doing what the law tells them to do to the best of their abilities despite constant and active attempts to prevent them from doing so by US federal agencies from the coast guard to congress and the white house.


    what

  12. #12 Robert S.
    June 24, 2010

    There has been much talk (mostly from folks with huge COIs) about how the deep water moratorium is somehow unjustified. Why hasn’t anyone stood up and mentioned that almost all of the major players in the oil industry have the same boilerplate base spill response plan. Does Shell have thousands of miles of booming stored away that they haven’t made available to help in this spill? Or did all of the corps misstate their ability to handle a major spill? That seems like adequate justification to put a hold on new drilling until reevaluation is done.

  13. #13 Moopheus
    June 24, 2010

    “most people I speak to are very skeptical that any of the BP executives will spend time in prison, despite this Facebook page with more than 1300 members”

    It boggles the mind that the powers that be can resist the awesome force of a Facebook page.

  14. #14 knwd
    June 25, 2010

    @Lyle (#5)

    “As pointed out no one at BP wanted the accident to happen or worked directly to cause it. A crime generally requires a willful act to cause it…

    “The forest fire arson is a crime because a direct action was taken to cause it. Now if someone lied on this or that form to the government then you have perjury. More likley this is like more engineering disasters a series of small decisions each of which eats a bit out of the safety margin until things go boom. “

    I think you’d be interested in this story:
    http://www.propublica.org/feature/years-of-internal-bp-probes-warned-that-neglect-could-lead-to-accidents

    If all that they say is true, I think there is a clear case of shockingly willful negligence. In my mind, that makes it a criminal offense against the environment.

  15. #15 Laura Madding
    June 26, 2010

    Crimminals with lots of money seldom go to prison. B.P. will grease the palm of our elected official and get the get out of jail cards..

  16. #16 red pepper
    June 26, 2010

    If you speed down the highway with reckless abandon and cause a pile-up that kills someone you can get charged with murder.