In BP settlement, felonies matter more than fines

11 wooden crosses on the beach in Grand Isle, La., last year bore the names of the men who died aboard the Deepwater Horizon

Jason Anderson, Dale Burkeen, Donald Clark, Stephen Curtis, Gordon Jones, Roy Wyatt Kemp, Karl Kleppinger, Blair Manuel, Dewey Revette, Shane Roshto and Alan Weise. It’s worth remembering those names as BP announces its huge criminal settlement related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Those are the men who lost their lives in the accident, and their memory looms large in the settlement. BP agreed to plead guilty to 12 felony counts, 11 of which relate to the lives lost. The other is for obstruction of Congress.

In the years since the accident, much of the focus has been on BP’s response, on the environmental fallout and on impact of drilling in the Gulf. But the disaster was first and foremost a human tragedy, and it’s important that the government didn’t let BP off the hook on this point.

BP will also pay $4 billion in fines to the government over five years and $525 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission over three years, but those payments aren’t significant for a company of BP’s size.

What matters far more is that the company will now be branded as a felon. In the Texas City disaster, BP pleaded guilty to one felony count, despite the loss of 15 lives. Even then, it was a division of the company, not the company itself, that bore the distinction as a corporate criminal.

Several individuals still may face criminal charges as well. That, too, sends an important message to executives that their decisions matter. The point of the case, though, can’t merely be to punish BP. BP has to fundamentally change its culture, beginning at the top of the organization.

It claims that it has. Pleading guilty is another big step in showing that it has. Now both BP and the industry need to use the Deepwater Horizon as a catalyst to ensure that an accident like it never happens again.