By Kate Sheppard
Oil is still spewing into the Gulf of Mexico after last weekend’s latest failed attempt to stop the well. Now at day 43, the gulf gusher has unleashed at least 21.7 million gallons of oil, although the number could be as high as 45 million, based on the largest estimate from the government’s spill team.
The government team gave a likely range of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day leaking from the well; one team put the high end at 25,000 barrels. Even the low end is far higher than BP’s first estimated rate of spill, which was 1,000 barrels a day, and much higher than the government’s initial estimate of 5,000 barrels a day. These figures are of course important for the fate of the Gulf of Mexico, as we hear dire warnings of the long-term effects of all this oil. But it’s also key to figuring out exactly how much BP might owe the United States.
The company will be expected to pay for the response efforts, including all the money spent sending the Coast Guard and federal employees to the scene. It will also be expected to compensate the coastal communities and businesses destroyed by the spill. This is the area where there’s been much debate over raising the liability cap, currently set at the very, very low figure of $75 million. But the company will also be forced to pay up under the Clean Water Act, which allows the government to levy civil penalties in court for every barrel of oil spilled. (There could also be criminal penalties, depending on what the Justice Department determines.)
The base fine for a spill is $1,100 a barrel, but it can go as high as $4,300 a barrel if a federal court determines that the spill was the result of gross negligence by the responsible party. From what has come to light in the past few days, it’s looking more likely that BP ignored a number of warning signs about problems with the rig and well, so that might well be the case.
How do these numbers stack up? Well, if BP is found to be negligent and we believed their initial 1,000-barrel-a day figure, they’d only owe $184.9 million. If the low end of the government estimate is right, they’d owe $2.2 billion. And if the highest end is right? They’d owe $4.6 billion.
The difference is significant, so it’s little wonder that the company tried so hard for so long to minimize the damage. And now it looks like the spill could continue for months, meaning those dollars could start to add up.
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