This blog was originally posted on the Huffington Post.
There has been a lot of news lately about whether BP will settle all of the legal claims against it stemming from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe two years ago, or whether the company will end up in court. As is typical of most things surrounding the oil spill issue, much of the information that has come out in recent weeks has done little more than muddy the waters.
First of all, despite a settlement announced late last Friday, most of the legal claims against BP have not been settled. The recent $7.8 billion settlement only represents the private injury claims brought by local residents, fishermen, tourism companies, and the like whose businesses and livelihoods were devastated by the oil spill. That's important, but it's not even close to half of the story. The remaining claims -- what BP owes the American people -- could amount to many times that amount.
BP has yet to settle with the Federal Government, which represents "we the people," and it hasn't settled with the affected states. The Feds have already brought one suit seeking civil penalties and natural resource damages from BP, and could bring more in the future. Estimates of the total amount that BP owes us just for those federal claims have varied from $20 to $60 billion.
These numbers might seem large, but the truth is they don't come close to the total amount that BP could -- and should -- be required to pay. Our nation's environmental laws allow the Justice Department to seek damages and penalties against BP that could be as high as $90 billion. But recent discussions in the press of a possible future settlement between BP and the Federal Government have focused on much lower amounts in the $20-25 billion range. Compared to what BP could be asked to pay -- and what we have the right to demand -- that's not a deal the American people should be happy about.
To help add some clarity to these numbers, here are a few of the key components that will be decided either through a trial, or by an agreement between BP and the Justice Department: