Crime Pays for BP

It turns out crime pays. Big time. BP, the oil company responsible
for what may become the largest oil spill of all time in the United
States has been breaking the law, again and again. And each time, the
company formerly known as British Petroleum has learned its lesson:
Keep breaking the law. Corporations can get away with murder and
environmental devastation, and make billions doing it.

For example, last year BP paid the largest penalty in the history of
the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for willful
negligence that led to the death of 15 workers and the injury of 170
others in a March 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City. The fine
amounted to $87.43 million.

That may sound like a lot, but BP made $163 billion in profits
between 2001 and 2009, and another $5.6 billion in the first three
months of 2010. Along the way, it paid fines for violating the law that
totaled roughly $530 million, or one-third of 1 percent of the
company's profits over the same time period.

financial penalties are so minor that BP routinely scrimps on safety,
says oil worker safety advocate Chuck Hamel. In Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, BP
oil workers have told Hamel they are expected to routinely falsify
drilling rigs' safety tests.

The reason? Because conducting a safety test--perhaps a test similar
to the very one that might have averted the gargantuan Deepwater
Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico--means shutting down the rig.
And shutting down means oil doesn't flow for a few minutes. So, says
Hamel, in order to make more money for BP, the world's fourth-biggest
corporation, these workers were told to routinely falsify their own
safety reports and carry on drilling.

Now BP is the primary culprit in one of the biggest manmade
disasters of all time. Thousands of fishermen will lose their
livelihoods for years. The Gulf Coast's tourism may get slammed. Maybe
this time, BP will take a sizeable hit. Or will it? Currently, the
maximum penalty BP could pay for this fiasco is $75 million. That's
roughly 1.3 percent of the profits it earned in January, February, and
March of this year.

However, lawmakers have introduced bills raising the liability cap
from $75 million to $10 billion. In Congress, this initiative has been
dubbed the "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act."

Even if lawmakers could muster the backbone to raise the penalty to
$10 billion, would this prevent a Big Oil bailout? Probably not. The
liability could run into the tens of billions of dollars if this spill
hits Florida's beaches and goes up the eastern shore. It could cost
American taxpayers tens of billions more, on top of the $10 billion
that BP may or may not pay.

And so we the people need to make sure Congress scraps any limit on
liability--whether it's $75 million or $10 billion--for oil companies
that cause environmental and economic disasters. Lawmakers also need to
stop making taxpayers clean up after oil companies. Otherwise, they
will take greater and greater risks in oil exploration and we will all

Given BP's repeated criminal activity, our elected leaders should
take a stand once and for all and make this criminal pay, no matter how
high the cost. They should also vow to never accept oil money to
finance their electoral bids. To do otherwise at this moment in history
just makes them accomplices in one of the largest environmental crimes
of all time.

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This column was distributed by OtherWords.