We are thrilled to hear reports that oil giant BP is preparing to accept criminal responsibility for the 2010 deaths of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that was responsible for the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
According to those reports, BP has agreed to pay $4.5 billion in restitution and fines for the release of nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It was the largest criminal penalty ever levied by the U.S. Justice Department and there should be more penalties to come.
BP has said it will plead guilty to one felony count of obstruction of Congress stemming from false information it gave about the rate that oil was leaking from the well and 11 felony counts of "seaman's manslaughter" relating to the deaths aboard Deepwater Horizon.
As part of the plea agreement, the company admits that its workers were negligent when they misinterpreted a key well safety test.
That misinterpretation, along with other missteps, caused the rig to spew oil into the Gulf. Through the benefit of underwater cameras, the nation watched as the company and consultants repeatedly attempted to cap the belching well, but that effort took nearly three months.
Perhaps equally important is that three former BP employees were charged last week by a federal grand jury with felonies in the incident, two of them for allegedly failing to carry out a critical safety test properly.
While we are happy to see this admission of criminal responsibility on the part of the company and the criminal charges against former officials, it is not nearly the final chapter in this horrific disaster.
BP still faces an even costlier battle with the government over civil penalties for the pollution unleashed from the drilling rig. The government has said that it will pursue civil charges against BP for what it has called "gross negligence."
If that charge were to be fully proved -- which is a very difficult standard to prove -- the company could be fined about $20 billion. Experts in the field, however, have predicted a negotiated settlement somewhere in the $10 billion range.
According to The Wall Street Journal, this settlement will dwarf the previous record for damage actions by the government, which was set earlier this year when GlaxoSmithKline pleaded guilty to two criminal counts for introducing misbranded drugs and one for failing to report safety data. The company paid $3 billion in civil and criminal damages combined in that case.
While the progress in this case has not been exactly swift, we hope that successful prosecution of it will serve as an object lesson to corporations that are thinking about cutting corners on safety.