Despite the billion-dollar costs associated with the Gulf Coast oil spill, Big Oil companies enjoy the protection of a $75 million dollar cap on liability. Unless the cap is increased, these companies, earning profits in excess of $24 billion in the first quarter of 2010, will only have to legally pay for a fraction of the overall economic impact of this preventable disaster. In recent weeks, Senate Democrats have brought forward legislation that would ensure Big Oil companies pay for their own mistakes by raising the liability cap for offshore oil well spills. Senate Democrats have also released a letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward, calling on the company to put aside $20 billion in a special account to ensure repayment to victims of the spill.
Blindly trusting Big Oil to take full responsibility, Senate Republicans have blocked this legislation and left hard-working American families at risk of paying for the economic damage caused by oil spills. Last month, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell defended the oil industry by stating that BP would “pay for this.”
Have Republicans forgotten about Big Oil’s track record?
Here is a look back at the oil companies’ record of negligence in some of the biggest domestic oil spills:
- March 2006 - A pipe owned and operated by BP cracked, leaking over 200,000 gallons of oil into Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The oil spread into wetlands, shorelines and rivers along the coast. Despite pleading guilty to violating the Clean Water Act, BP is still fighting fines and attempting to limit their liability from this disaster.
- March 2005 - A fire and explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas killing 15 workers and injures another 170. The company was fined $87 million for occupational and worker safety violations. In October of 2009, BP announced that it would challenge the record-setting penalty with the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
- November 2000 - Over 550,000 gallons of crude oil leaked into the Mississippi River just 60 miles south of New Orleans, Louisiana after the tanker Westchester lost power and ran aground. Cleanup procedures took close to three months, and the owner of the ship settled with federal and state agencies for an undisclosed amount.
- January 1996 - The tank barge North Cape grounded off of Moonstone Beach, Rhode Island, pouring 20,000 barrels of home heating oil into Block Island Sound. The spill killed more than 10 million lobsters and resulted in a ban on fishing in the area for several months. The owner of North Cape agreed to restock a portion of the wildlife and pay $8 million to restore other resources.
- August 1993 – Three vessels collided at the entrance to the Tampa Bay, Florida port, resulting in the release of approximately 328,000 gallons of jet fuel, gasoline, diesel fuel, and crude oil.
- June 1990 - The tanker Mega Borg released over 5 million gallons of crude oil after colliding with a second ship 60 miles off of Galveston, Texas. A subsequent fire on the tanker quickly ignited the gushing oil, burning approximately 100,000 barrels.
- February 1990 – A BP-chartered oil tanker, American Trader, punctured its hull off the coast of Orange County, California. More than 410,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into ocean. Recreational and biological impacts totaled over $14 million, which the BP fought in court.
- March 1989 - The tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 260,000 barrels of oil into the ocean. Despite the catastrophic damages from the 53 million gallon spill, Exxon used antiquated maritime law to stall and eventually reduce the amount (from $5 billion to $500 million) paid to Alaska’s fishermen, Native Alaskans, and landowners.
- December 1976 - On its way to Boston, the Argo Merchant tanker ran aground southeast of Nantucket, Massachusetts. The ship could not be salvaged and eventually broke apart on the rocks, spilling all 183,000 barrels of oil into the bay.
- January 1969 – A Union Oil Company platform situated six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California suffered a blowout. Almost 3 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the ocean, covering 800 square miles of water and over 35 miles of coastline. Local companies and residents filed a class-action lawsuit, and the company paid just $6.5 million. In response to the accident, drilling was halted off the California coast for almost two decades
Outer Continental Shelf Civil and Criminal Penalties. Oil companies have also continued to violate the Department of the Interior’s regulations stipulated under the Minerals Management Service Outer Continental Shelf Civil and Criminal Penalties Program. Here are just a few examples:
- In 2009 there were 20 individual cases, combining 30 violations, totaling $919,000.
- The most notable violation involved the plugging and abandoning of a well and the company was fined $440,000.
- In 2008 there were 31 individual cases, combining 68 violations, totaling $2,210,250.
- One of the most notable violations involved a finding that the remote blowout preventer (BOP) control station was functioning without any operating pressure and that the stairs to the BOP remote station were unsafe.
- In 2007 there were 36 individual cases, combining 37 violations, totaling $3,106,000.
- One of the most notable violations involved a finding that a piece of the BOP equipment had not be subjected to proper testing.
- In 2006 there were 41 individual cases, combining 54 violations, totaling $1,480,000.
- One of the most notable violations involves a finding that a BOP station on a rig was not operating key pieces of the BOP on the ocean floor.
Senate Republicans should stop trusting Big Oil to own up to its responsibility, and allow this important legislation to pass.