NEW ORLEANS–A federal judge gave the green light Tuesday to a deal that allowed BP to plead guilty to manslaughter and other criminal charges stemming from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill in exchange for a $4 billion fine, probation and independent monitoring.
BP lawyer Mark Filip entered the guilty plea on the company’s behalf.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance’s decision during an emotional hearing in New Orleans was issued over the objections of victims of the disaster and relatives of some of the 11 workers who were killed on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
After she ruled, one family member criticized the plea bargain and the financial arrangement.
“I think BP is the real winner today,” said Chris Jones, whose brother, Gordon Jones, was killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
“They got what they wanted — to resolve the criminal charges — and they get a nice five-year payment plan to pay it off,” he said.
The ruling and guilty plea to 14 criminal charges ends the criminal case against BP over the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. It marks the first criminal conviction to result from the disaster.
“The government has caught the bank robber and cut a deal with the criminals for return of the money and left the people shot in the bank robbery to fend for themselves,” rig survivor Buddy Trahan told the judge in Tuesday’s hearing. He suffered extensive injuries in the blast but hasn’t been compensated by BP.
Trahan was among eight victims of the disaster, including the widows and fathers of some of the rig workers who were killed and people who were affected by the spill, who spoke of how it changed their lives.
A BP executive apologized directly to the families and insisted that the company has fully accepted its responsibility.
“We are doing what we can to prevent something like this from happening again,” Albert Keller, a BP vice president, told the judge.
He added, “We at BP will not forget what happened on April 20, 2010. We are truly sorry.”
While the guilty plea ends the criminal case against BP, the British oil giant still faces the prospect of having to pay billions more in civil fines over the amount of oil that spilled. A civil trial is set to begin in the same courthouse Feb. 25.
And the fallout continues for BP’s partners on the ill-fated well project. Rig owner Transocean is scheduled to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of violating the Clean Water Act and cement contractor Halliburton could face criminal charges, but as of yet hasn’t reached any deals with the U.S. government. Four current and former BP employees also face criminal charges, and they are preparing for trial.
The catastrophe started when a well a mile beneath the sea blew out on April 20, 2010, about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The blowout caused an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, which later sank. The resulting spill was the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
According to government estimates, some 4.9 million barrels of oil, or 206 million gallons, was discharged by the well. The crude stained beaches, killed birds and fish and drove tourists away. BP has already paid out more than $24 billion on clean-up efforts, to compensate victims and to cover other spill-related costs.
During the hearing, several victims suggested the punishment BP agreed to wasn’t harsh enough for a company with pockets as deep as BP. They asked Vance to reject the deal and force BP to go to trial.
“It may be a record fine, but we are not here today to set records,” said Billy Anderson, whose son, Jason, was killed on the rig. “We are here to punish BP. To punish a corporation, you must do the same thing you do a punish a child. The first thing you have to do is get their attention.”
Keith Jones, the father of Gordon Jones, described the fine as “petty cash.”
“BP doesn’t want to feel the pain and they won’t have to, not as much,” he told the judge.
Vance told the families she understands their pain. She said the victims’ testimony was “gut wrenching” and “brings home the gravity of BP’s conduct.”
“I understand how bad this conduct is,” she said. “I want you to know you have my sympathy.”
But Vance said that while she agrees “BP has committed serious offenses,” she believes the plea deal and negotiated sentence are fair. She also said that while BP technically could have faced higher fines if it proceeded to trial -– a complex provision allows for fines of twice the gross gain or loss from the conduct charged -– it is difficult to prove what is necessary to trigger such fines.
“The court finds the proposed plea agreement is a reasonable disposition,” Vance said.
Read ongoing FuelFix coverage of the legal trials surrounding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill:
Some parties appeal spill settlement ruling (Jan. 25)
BP, Justice Department say Gulf plea deal fair and appropriate (Jan. 16)
Judge gets sentence recommendation for BP (Jan. 14)
Rig victim’s widow says Gulf disaster caused ‘inferno of grief’ (Jan. 11)
Transocean to pay government $1.4B to settle fed’s spill claims (Jan. 3)
Government accuses BP of being evasive on Gulf spill flow rate (Dec. 28)
Judge approves BP class action settlement (Dec. 21)