Steffy: Victim's father sees big omission in BP talks
Keith Jones has heard about the government's negotiations over criminal charges related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Amid all the talk of multibillion-dollar fines, though, he sees a glaring omission.
"Nobody has done anything to prosecute the people who were directly responsible for these deaths," said Jones, who lives in Baton Rouge, La.
Jones' son, Gordon, was among the 11 men killed aboard the Deepwater Horizon, but he's also a lawyer involved in the case. He's "somewhat mystified" that all the talk involving the government's criminal claims against BP, the rig's operator, and Transocean, its owner, have been about fines for pollution crimes.
From the beginning, the sense of accountability for the lives lost has been supplanted by environmental liability, but Jones worries that the companies involved already are looking past the potential fines, eager to get on with business as usual. Despite his loss, he isn't being vindictive. He doesn't believe anyone at either company intended for the rig to blow up 2½ years ago, unleashing the country's worst offshore oil spill. None thought the decisions they were making would lead to disaster.
Their incentives, though, were misplaced. They were rewarded for saving money, which overrode the seemingly remote concerns for the safety of those on the rig.
"Given that the abstract risk that everybody could die wasn't enough, then maybe the real risk that they might go to jail for it might be enough to affect their decisions," Jones said.
BP has, of course, paid a price with both its reputation and its finances. It's sold billions in assets to raise money for spill-related costs, and its stock price has languished since the accident. The company, if smaller, will survive.
Last week, the Justice Department filed a scathing motion in the related civil case in New Orleans, reiterating plans to pursue claims of gross negligence against BP, which would enable it to seek fines of as much as $21 billion.
BP, it said, operated with a "culture of corporate recklessness," which of course, has been well documented in disaster investigation after disaster investigation going back a decade.
BP has denied it acted with gross negligence.
"The facts support a gross negligence finding," said Beaumont attorney Brent Coon, who's sued BP over both this disaster and its previous one, the Texas City refinery explosion of 2005. "What happened on that rig is what often happens when it involves BP."
Meanwhile, on Monday, Transocean disclosed in a regulatory filing that it offered to settle all government claims for $1.5 billion. The government, which has accused the company of botching a key pressure test that preceded the disaster, didn't accept the offer.
The purpose of a fine
Jones believes the fines are important, but he worries they won't be enough to change corporate behavior.
"It ought to be a lot of money," he said. "The purpose of a fine is to make them feel it."
Two and a half years removed from the disaster, returning to normal operations in the Gulf has surpassed concerned about accountability. BP has said the Gulf, where it's the biggest lease holder, remains important to its future. In Britain, the company is increasingly portrayed in the press as being picked on in the U.S. because it's a foreign corporation that simply had an unfortunate and unpredictable accident.
The regulatory filing in which Transocean discussed its negotiations with the government detailed a proposed bond offering, a plan to raise, coincidentally, $1.5 billion. It intends to retire its shallow-water rigs and focus on deep-water drilling, the most challenging and dangerous operations of all.
Despite all the hand-wringing over the drilling moratorium in the Gulf that followed the disaster, and despite all the regulations that have been proposed and haggled over between the industry and the government, the one condition most relevant to the disaster - that a company's safety record should be considered in issuing new permits - has been ignored.
BP and Transocean would like to move forward, to bury the past along with the dead, but neither the legacy of their disaster, nor the accountability for it, should be so easily forgotten.
Loren Steffy, email@example.com, is the Chronicle's business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Follow him online at blog.chron.com/lorensteffy, www.facebook.com/LorenSteffypage and twitter.com/lsteffy.
By Loren Steffy