Put simply, BP has paid big — and it will continue to pay big.
But the fiscal damage is not over.
In the first place, the agreement must be approved by Judge Carl J. Barbier of federal district court in New Orleans, and that will take time. In addition, some of the plaintiffs may choose to opt-out of the settlement and continue litigation.
However, there is reason to believe that the settlement will be approved and accepted. The existing claims process had evaluated more than a million claims from more than 600,000 individuals and businesses. It also had paid more than 225,000 of them. But a long and expensive trial would have snarled the process and likely delayed settlement for those yet uncompensated.
The fact that it took Exxon 20 years to settle the claims for the Exxon-Valdez oil spill surely weighed on the minds of all parties involved.
Still, the agreement does not include the biggest plaintiffs in the case — the federal government and the state and local governments along the Gulf Coast. This leaves many questions unanswered.
Will the Justice Department press BP and the other companies involved — Transocean and Halliburton — to pay billions of dollars in fines for violations of the Clean Water Act? As Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle pointed out, nothing in the settlement “compensates the public for the significant damages to (the) natural resources and environment, and BP has yet to pay a penalty for its violations of the law.”
Tough talk, but it might be part of a strategy to convince BP that Washington is ready to expose all the errors that were made and make a case for gross negligence on the part of the company. That could result in even more fines. Faced with that possibility, BP and the others defendants could be ready to settle with federal, state and local governments.
Also involved are environmental groups, but if a bill introduced by Sens. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., and Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, passes, environmentalists will be happy. Under its provisions, 80 percent of the fines collected would go to Gulf Coast restoration.
This settlement could be the beginning of the end, not just the end of the beginning. If the agreement is accepted by Judge Barbier and administered, as a lawyer for the plaintiffs observed, “in a transparent and expeditious manner under rigorous judicial oversight,” those responsible for this tragedy will pay and those harmed will be compensated.
It might not “make things right,” as the former CEO of BP promised the company would, but it will come close.