NEW ORLEANS: BP PLC closed the book on the Justice Department’s criminal probe of its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Gulf oil spill Tuesday, when a federal judge agreed to let the London-based oil giant plead guilty to manslaughter charges for the deaths of 11 rig workers and pay a record $4 billion in penalties.
What the plea deal approved by U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance doesn’t resolve, though, is the federal government’s civil claims against BP. The company could pay billions more for environmental damage from its 2010 spill.
Vance noted that the company already has racked up more than $24 billion in spill-related expenses and has estimated it will pay a total of $42 billion to fully resolve its liability for the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The judge said the $4 billion criminal settlement is “just punishment” for BP, even though the company could have paid far more without going broke. In accepting the deal, Vance also cited the risk that a trial could result in a much lower fine for BP, one potentially capped by law at $8.2 million.
The criminal settlement calls for BP to pay nearly $1.3 billion in fines. The largest previous corporate criminal penalty assessed by the Justice Department was a $1.2 billion fine against drug maker Pfizer in 2009.
The plea deal also includes payments of nearly $2.4 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences. The two groups will administer the money to fund Gulf restoration and oil spill prevention projects.
The $4 billion in total penalties are 160 times greater than the $25 million fine that Exxon paid for the 1989 Valdez spill in Alaska, Vance noted.
Before she ruled, the judge heard an apology from a BP executive and emotional testimony from relatives of the 11 workers who died when BP’s blown-out Macondo well triggered an explosion on the rig and started the spill.
“I’ve heard and I truly understand your feelings and the losses you suffered,” Vance told the family members.
Keith Jones, whose 28-year-old son, Gordon, died in the rig explosion, said $4 billion isn’t adequate punishment.
“It is petty cash to BP,” he told Vance. “Their stock went up after this plea deal was announced.”
Billy Anderson, whose 35-year-old son, Jason, of Midfield, Texas, died in the blast, recalled the trauma of watching the disaster play out on television.
“These men suffered a horrendous death,” he said. “They were basically cremated alive and not at their choice.”
BP agreed in November to plead guilty to charges involving the workers’ deaths and for lying to Congress about the size of the spill from its broken well, which spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil. Much of it ended up in the Gulf and soiled the shorelines of several states. The company could have withdrawn from the agreement if Vance had rejected it.
BP America vice president Luke Keller apologized to the relatives of the workers who died and for the spill’s environmental damage to the Gulf Coast.
“BP knows there is nothing we can say to diminish their loss,” he said. “The lives lost and those forever changed will stay with us. We are truly sorry.”
Most of the families of rig workers who were killed or injured in the blast already have settled their claims against BP in a separate process.