From the first time I heard a BP official (May 3, 2010 on NPR) promise to pay “all legitimate claims” arising from the massive “Deepwater Horizon” discharge of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, my mind turned immediately to the epic legal drama that unfolded in the poisonous wake of the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster.
In the press and during Congressional hearings, BP officials have been extremely disciplined in their undeviating use of this phrase to describe BP’s alleged readiness to pay its fair share (let’s remember that Halliburton and other oil industry contractors are also responsible for this mess) of the financial damages caused by the oil plume emanating from its drilling operation. Putting aside the issue of whether the full extent of the damage this disaster is causing can ever truly be measured in dollars and cents, it doesn’t take a lawyer to figure out that the phrase “all legitimate claims”–a reasonable enough sounding frame–could give defense attorneys a lot of wiggle room in deciding which claims to pay and which claims to fight. If BP takes a page out of the Exxon playbook and decides to fight, there’s a good chance that BP will pay pennies on the dollar for those claims that it ultimately determines to be legitimate.
In case you’re wondering, BP’s profits from the first quarter of 2010 alone were nearly 5.598 BILLION–an increase of 135% over first quarter of 2009 according to BP’s own figures. That kind of money can buy you the most aggressive defense attorneys in the country–the likes of which lost the first Exxon Valdez trial, but then won the 20-year long legal war of attrition that followed. Exxon’s endless appeals dragged out payment of and–with the help of a corporation-friendly Supreme Court majority–ultimately dwindled down the amount of damages awarded to fishermen, natives, and others whose livelihoods suffered or were destroyed by the Valdez disaster.
If you want a preview of where things could be headed if BP does decide to dig in its heels, there are at least two great books on the Exxon disaster that are worth reading. David Lebedoff’s Cleaning Up: The Story of the Biggest Legal Bonanza of Our Time focuses on the known facts surrounding the Exxon disaster as they were argued at trial and tells the heart-wrenching story of the victims, the perpetrators, and the lawyers that represented them on both sides of the issue. Dr. Riki Ott’s book Not One Drop– Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill covers some of the same ground, but brings a broader scientific and socio-political context to the events that led to and followed the Valdez disaster. Hers is a compelling indictment of the whole legal and political system surrounding oil extraction that has been designed for and in large part by the oil companies themselves.
As we continue to watch helplessly as the Deepwater Horizon debacle unfolds, it’s important to revisit the Exxon Valdez spill and its tortured legacy. Regardless of what happens in the legal battles to come, both disasters–and the growing menace of climate change that is literally fueled by our seemingly insatiable appetite for oil–make the most compelling case in the Court of Public Opinion for truly getting “Beyond Petroleum.” We are all members of the jury in that case. How will you vote?