The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill recommended this month that Congress raise the current $75 million liability cap for oil companies, but did not offer a specific proposal or dollar amount.
The liability cap limits the amount oil companies are legally obligated to pay those who file claims against them after environmental disasters. Once the cost exceeds the cap, taxpayer dollars fund the recovery.
A bill that aimed to remove the $75 million cap passed in the House of Representatives last summer, but negotiations regarding a new cap killed the bill in the Senate. Industry allies have argued that removing the cap would make it impossible for smaller companies to afford the insurance required to drill offshore.
But if a company can’t afford to clean up its own potential mess, it shouldn’t be encouraged to make one in the first place. Any liability cap, no matter how high, is an insult to the people who feel the harshest effects of an oil spill.
According to MSNBC, estimates of the total cost for cleanup and claims in last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster reached $70 billion. Frank Glaviano, former vice president of Shell Exploration and Production, said to MSNBC that no amount of money will be able to repair the damage that was done by the spill.
According to restorethegulf.gov, the Deepwater Horizon well gushed an estimated 62,000 barrels of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico at the height of the spill, leaking approximately 4.9 million barrels overall. President Barack Obama described the disaster as the worst the country has faced.
BP set up a $20 billion claims escrow fund. However, the national commission released a report this month saying that many claimants are dissatisfied with the amounts of their payments. Others received no payments at all after dealing with the messy claims process.
Fishing and tourism bring more than $120 billion to the area surrounding the Gulf each year, according to MSNBC, and fishing operations were shut down for months during and after the spill. Oil touched 650 miles of coastal land, according to the National Resources Defense Council. The environmental and economic damage is still being tallied.
Additionally, marine toxicologist Riki Ott estimated that 4 to 5 million residents had been exposed to dangerous amounts of oil, according to Bridge the Gulf, a group supporting environmental justice in the Gulf.
When a spill halts business, transforms industries, impacts the environment and alters human health, the oil company at fault should pay every legitimate claim, even if it goes belly up.
The cap discourages companies from investing in safety innovations, which might cost more than the cap itself.
Sure, if the cap were removed, smaller companies may be discouraged. Higher insurance costs might eventually drive up the price of gas or force companies to move out of the Gulf completely for fear of drilling in risky areas.
But the countless animals that suffered from suffocation, hypothermia, pneumonia, drowning, starvation, cancer, chemical burns, ulcers, digestive tract bleeding, infection, diarrhea, kidney damage, liver damage, anemia, intestinal disorders and painful deaths would likely approve of unlimited liability’s side effects.
The scary part is that 27,000 wells are currently abandoned and unchecked in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Associated Press. Many have been abandoned since the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
BP alone has abandoned 600 wells.
According to the AP, tens of thousands may be badly sealed, because they were drilled before strict regulations or the operating companies violated rules.
After wells are abandoned, no one checks for leaks. Environmental Protection Agency data shows that 17 percent of wells on land had been improperly plugged. If that percentage is synonymous offshore, 4,600 wells in the Gulf could be defectively plugged.
Shoddy plugs, age, corrosion and natural changes below the sea level can cause a well to fail. Petroleum engineer John Getty said to the AP that abandoned wells may eventually leak after decades of aging.
Since 1978, poor cement jobs have been cited 34 times in accident and incident reports on offshore wells, according to an AP review.
Oil companies are taking risks to make enormous profit. They should be held limitlessly accountable for mistakes that could harm an entire region for generations. Those who can’t afford the responsibility that comes with putting an entire ecosystem in harm’s way should not consider going into such a dangerous business.
Lydia Harvery is a senior majoring in mass communications.