BP faces day of reckoning for Gulf oil spill

BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico after an explosion that led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

U.S. Coast Guard

BP’s misconduct caused the nation’s largest offshore oil spill, and now it will pay record criminal fines and penalties -- $4.5 billion.

We can only hope that Shell, which plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean next summer, is watching.

More than two years after the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil giant BP is facing a day of reckoning. The company pleaded guilty on Nov. 15 to an array of criminal charges related to the deaths of 11 rig workers and environmental damage, and agreed to a record fine.

As a tragic reminder of how dangerous offshore oil drilling is, the day after BP’s guilty plea, an explosion on another rig in the Gulf of Mexico injured 11 workers and left two missing. That rig is owned by a Texas-based company called Black Elk Energy.

In the Deepwater Horizon case, three BP employees will face criminal charges and possible prison sentences. Two of them are accused of manslaughter because they allegedly ignored unusual high-pressure readings that should have been recognized as a sign of serious trouble before the blowout that killed 11 people and spilled approximately 200 million gallons of crude oil.  And BP’s vice president for exploration in the Gulf is facing charges of obstructing Congress and making false statements about how much oil was gushing from the out-of-control well.  

U.S. Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the tragedy "resulted from BP's culture of privileging profit over prudence."

These fines and penalties won’t cripple a company that made a record $25.8 billion in profits last year, but they do make a statement. Drilling for offshore oil is a dirty, risky business, and cutting corners on safety will lead to punishment. Maybe even prison time. BP could lose billions more in civil lawsuits.

The Obama administration has pledged to hold oil companies accountable for safety and environmental violations, and that’s music to our ears. Because if they’re going to gamble with our oceans and wildlands, oil companies should know that the stakes are high, and that everyone’s watching.