Upping the Ante: How the Department of Justice May Help Save Louisiana’s Coast

By Whit Remer, Policy Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

There has been a lot of media attention surrounding a recent court filing made by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in the BP 2010 oil spill private plaintiffs’ settlement. (For more information on the difference between the private plaintiffs’ case and the government’s case, click here). The filing is relevant and important for Gulf Coast restoration for two reasons. First, the brief slams BP for the company’s carelessness during operation of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. This could mean a windfall for the RESTORE Act, which is funded by Clean Water Act penalties that are increased in circumstances where extreme carelessness — or in legal terms “gross negligence” — is proven.

The second is that despite claims by BP, natural resources in the gulf have not recovered and continue to suffer from impacts caused by the oil spill. Evidence of these impacts were confirmed both in the DOJ brief and by tests verifying that BP oil reappeared in the form of tar balls and tar mats on Louisiana beaches following Hurricane Isaac.

Potential big payout for RESTORE Act

The DOJ filing alleges that BP acted with total disregard to safety and the law when senior level officials ignored well tests that indicated drilling difficulties aboard the Deepwater Horizon. A finding of gross negligence would significantly increase the amount of penalty money BP would pay under the Clean Water Act and other environmental statutes. If the allegations of gross negligence are proven, then revenue levels for the recently passed RESTORE Act would increase substantially. It is estimated that these penalties could reach $21 billion, and 80 percent of that money would be dedicated to Gulf Coast restoration — all thanks to the RESTORE Act.

Natural resource damages and newly exposed oil

When Hurricane Isaac passed through the Gulf Coast, storm surge from the hurricane uncovered new tar balls and tar mats from the 2010 oil spill. The new oil exposure casts doubt on BP’s claims of robust recovery and a near complete cleanup. Around the same time, DOJ filed its brief which alleges that BP “cherry-picked assertions of robust recovery” in the gulf. The brief went on to say that these allegations were “premature,” a statement evidenced by the recent oil exposed by Isaac. It now appears DOJ had good reason to worry that BP overstated its progress on recovery and cleanup.

DOJ’s memo also contains a first look at the scientific evidence the government is mounting against BP for damage caused to natural resources by the oil spill. Scientific findings like those made by Dr. Brian Silliman prove the oil spill accelerated coastal wetland loss. That research, backed by the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that “oil-driven plant death on the edges of [Louisiana] marshes more than doubled rates of shoreline erosion, further driving marsh platform loss that is likely to be permanent.” In short, the DOJ filing is packed with scientific evidence and facts showing that the Gulf Coast has not recovered, despite claims by BP.

BP still has a lot of work to do to fix what it broke. The company must continue to pay for the direct damage caused to natural resources by the oil spill, and it must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law for its mistakes. It’s the fair thing to do.