The blue marble

The blue marble

BP’s 4.5 billion $ fine: The “largest-ever criminal resolution in US history”

The $4.5 billion (US) fine levied on BP for their role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the northern Gulf of Mexico was the “largest-ever criminal resolution in US history” and has been generally praised by environmental managers, conservationists and the public. The BP settlement has certainly set an historic precedent, and with criminal enquiries ongoing, similar fines are expected for BP under the Clean Water Act.

The environment seems to be the winner from this agreement. Too often it seems that the fate of the environment is in the hands of legal argument, as was the case for Exxon Valdez where courts ruled that over 80% of the $150 million fine didn’t have to be paid because of the company’s cleanup efforts. As part of this recent settlement, BP will allocate $2.4 billion to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, an independent not-for-profit conservation group, for restoration and conservation efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. A further $350 million will be allocated to the National Academy of Science.

By comparison, the fines levied on the Thai-based oil company responsible for the Montara wellhead blowout, Australia’s third largest oil spill, at $ 510,000 was dwarf and did not include funding for monitoring and research. Environment Minister Burke was quoted saying “When we’re talking about protecting something as precious as our oceans, no amount of money ever provides genuine compensation for environmental catastrophe, ever”. We concur, but this is no reason to settle an accident of the magnitude and consequence of the Montara accident for just half a million $.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the Deepwater Horizon settlement has been the overall response by BP. By all accounts, BP pled guilty to all the charges and took full responsibility for the incident. This is an encouraging step and reinstalls confidence in industry and their willingness to accept their role as one of the leaders in management of environmental resources, amongst other things. It also reinforces what we wrote in a recent piece about finding common ground between academia, industry and government on policy and research priorities in advance of spill events. This is a unique opportunity for all parties and the public to respond and be proactive by bridging gaps and building partnerships toward a common goal.

It has been predicted that the US will be the biggest oil producers by the year 2020. For political and economic reasons this is an important forecast but there are equal if not more important consequences for the environment as well. Increased offshore means expanded operations into deep-water environments that sustain oil rich deposits. For the US, this means less reliance on foreign oil supply and opening up deep-sea drilling operations in equally vulnerable areas of Alaska and Gulf of Mexico. For Australia, this means expanding drilling operations in the proximity of national and indigenous heritage sites such as the Ningaloo Reef (drilling by BHP Billiton at 5 miles), as the GBR a World Heritage Site, and the remote Rowley Shoals (proposed drilling by Woodside) in the Western Australian coast and shelf area. With a vast span of cost spreading across 21,000 Km, it is hard to explain why high-risk activities, such as drilling for oil and gas near unique heritage sites including vulnerable fauna, are necessary. Science-based spatial planning is necessary to ensure that all outcomes, from biological conservation to resource extraction, can be achieved in ways that minimize risks while maximizing benefits.

Since Deepwater Horizon there have been at least a dozen spills of 100 tonnes or more into vulnerable and economically important marine systems, including Christmas Island, Rana spill New Zealand, Bonga Field in Nigeria, the Marshall Islands, Singapore and China. Given it took over 20 years for environmental impact assessments from the Exxon Valdez spill, it will be many decades before we begin to know the long-term effects of these recent spills on ecosystems thus monitoring efforts should be financially sustained for this period. The increased demand for fossil fuels cannot be a surrogate for environmental integrity and the quest for alternative energy sources must be given a priority.

What is more concerning though is the increased rate of spills with unknown volumes of oil released or regions that simply do not keep records on oil spills, such as Russia where there is an annual estimate of 500,000 tonnes of oil released into the Arctic. Furthermore, access to many spill records are restricted because they are considered “too sensitive” to release to the public. Simply knowing how much oil was released can provide all parties with vital information about the spatial and temporal scope of spills and how to best to administer clean up efforts. The trust barriers must be broken down and a common sense approach should be adopted with information sharing channels opened up between all parties.

Oil spills are stressful for everyone involved, thus such open discussions and collaborations are required now for clarity in advance of any oil spill incident. In particular, we identify the following needs:

  • Developing a cohesive network between science, government and industry with common goals set for efficient management of resources
  • Establishing long-term, effective environmental monitoring programs
  • Establishing communication channels for the information and data sharing and trust between all parties
  • Creating a list of research priorities and a achievable timeline to reach these goals
  • Establishing regular exercises testing our preparedness to react to spills and other disasters at sea including all parties involved in the response to spills, in which scientists had not yet participated.
  • Establish a science-based spatial planning framework for the governance of our safe and sustainable operation in the marine environment.
  • Improve infrastructure for research and industry, in particular focusing on regional 3-D models and remote sensing technology that forecast and monitors effects of spills and the necessary research platforms to deploy the observational capacity.

Moreover, there is a need to integrate partnerships and information sharing across borders. For example, international collaborations have been proposed between US and Australian research, government and industry involved in monitoring the effects of Deepwater Horizon, Montara and other oil spills on marine ecosystems. This proposed collaboration will clearly improve information sharing and allow establishment of new research and monitoring initiatives between all parties that will help develop relevant and adequate environmental policy and management of marine ecosystems on a case-by-case basis. The upcoming joint US-Australia Education, Science and Technology workshop in Canberra next March provides the ideal launch pad for this initiative.

Where there is oil drilling or shipping operations there is always the risk of release or exposure of hydrocarbons (and subsequently dispersants) to marine ecosystems, including pelagic and benthic organisms some of which humans depend on in commerce. Indeed, at least 200 tons of oil is illegally released into the water from the cleaning of oil holding tanks in large crude oil tankers.

Risk-management should not be about managing the size of fines following accidents, but taking measures to minimize the likely of such accidents to an absolute minimum and to ensure that sound and effective response plans are in place to contain the impacts of accidents, shall these happen.

We should all learn from our mistakes and heed warning from the Deepwater Horizon case to make sure appropriate management and industry strategies are in place through compromise and collaboration.

Co-authored by Robert Condon (Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Alabama, US).