Remember the ANSWER Coalition? They’re back with a series of protests over the next week calling for the seizure of the American assets of British Petroleum. ANSWER’s case to Seize BP:
By any number of economic, social and moral requirements, the assets of BP should be seized and used to provide comprehensive compensation and relief for those who have lost their jobs and whose livelihoods, homes and communities have been severely harmed or destroyed, and to clean up and restore the environment.
There is also a legal basis underlying a call for seizure.
Under deeply-rooted and long standing legal principles, BP should be responsible for all consequence of damage, not merely direct oil removal costs.
The doctrine of strict liability for ultrahazardous or inherently dangerous activities has deep roots within the law. See e.g., Rylands v. Fletcher, 3 H.L. 330 (1868) (landmark English tort law case applying the doctrine of strict liability for inherently dangerous activities in a case where an engineer constructed a reservoir on land to supply power to his steam-powered textile mill, the tanks collapsed and caused others’ property to become flooded).
Much as a keeper of a wild animal is held strictly liable for any damage the animal causes, regardless of fault, the doctrine of strict liability has been applied to industrial hazards, including drilling for oil. See, e.g., Green v. General Petroleum Corp., 205 Cal. 328 (1928) (case imposing strict liability, without showing of fault, upon oil drilling company that experienced well “blow-out” that spewed a steady stream of oil, gas, mud and rocks into the air for 24 hours, causing substantial damage).
Strict liability for ultrahazardous activities has been imposed, for example, on companies engaged in the transportation of toxic chemicals, activities involving poisonous gases, involving hazardous wastes, fireworks displays, deployment of rockets, etc….
The OPA’s limits of liability provision should be retroactively repealed.
There must be remediation and compensation for all damages flowing from BP’s oil spill, including all losses to people, economy and otherwise. It should not be up to BP to decide if and when to dole out compensation.
BP reaped $5.6 billion of profits in the first quarter of 2010 and $17 billion in 2009. This is money made from BP’s aggressive push into ultra-hazardous deep water offshore drilling that has taken the lives of 11 workers in the recent explosion, and caused human misery and environmental wreckage that will persist for years to come.
These huge sums are pure profit—what remains after all accounting maneuvers and payments of the massive salaries and luxurious perks to executives.
Here, BP has committed acts causing devastation that threatens the spoliation and poisoning of the shorelands, wildlife, human health and economy of no less than the five states that have frontal coastline on the Gulf of Mexico: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Worst case scenarios would pollute and destroy the frontal coastlines of states up the Atlantic seaboard.
BP’s conduct constitutes an assault on the people and environment of the surrounding region of the Gulf of Mexico.
BPs assets should be immediately seized, and placed in a trust, in amounts proportionate to—and sufficient to fully compensate for—all projected harm from its dangerous and reckless acts in pursuit of super-profits.
Robert Reich supports the notion more succinctly:
The Obama administration keeps saying BP is in charge because BP has the equipment and expertise necessary to do what’s necessary. But under temporary receivership, BP would continue to have the equipment and expertise. The only difference: the firm would unambiguously be working in the public’s interest. As it is now, BP continues to be responsible primarily to its shareholders, not to the American public. As a result, the public continues to worry that a private for-profit corporation is responsible for stopping a public tragedy.
Five reasons for taking such action:
1. We are not getting the truth from BP…. Government must be clearly in charge of getting all the facts, not waiting for what BP decides to disclose and when.
2. We have no way to be sure BP is devoting enough resources to stopping the gusher…. If government were in direct control of BP’s north American assets, it would be able to devote whatever of those assets are necessary to stopping up the well right away.
3. BP’s new strategy for stopping the gusher is highly risky…. At least under government receivership, public officials would be directly accountable for weighing the advantages and disadvantages of such a strategy.
4. Right now, the U.S. government has no authority to force BP to adopt a different strategy…. Expressing grave concerns is not enough. The President needs legal authority to order BP to protect the United States.
5. The President is not legally in charge. As long as BP is not under the direct control of the government he has no direct line of authority, and responsibility is totally confused.
Paul La Monica is critical of the notion:
Does anyone really think that the government should now add Big Oil to the list of bailed out industries? If the government is actually going to seize BP assets, then doesn’t the act of doing so mean that the U.S. taxpayer is now implicitly backing BP?
What happens if the government takes temporary control of BP assets and the costs of the spill grow so astronomically large that BP can’t handle them? Would the U.S. then be on the hook to pay for the spill?
Hopefully it won’t come to that. Despite the pummeling that BP’s stock has taken in the past month, it doesn’t appear just yet that the company’s financial situation is as dire as was the case with Fannie (FNM, Fortune 500), Freddie (FRE, Fortune 500), AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) and GM.
So what Washington needs to do is make sure that BP pays for the clean up costs as well as any viable legal claims tied to the economic and environmental disaster that the spill is creating for the citizens of the Gulf Coast.
Along those lines, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s tough talk about a criminal and civil probe of BP is a step in the right direction.
But how do you “make sure that BP pays?” When it comes to “making sure that BP pays,” I think history is on the Answer Coalition’s side, not Paul La Monica’s. Traditionally, the government would “make sure that BP pays” by taking BP to court. But although the infamous Exxon Valdez spill happened in 1989, the U.S. government wasn’t able to extract a payment from Exxon until 2009 — a whopping 20 years later. That’s how long it took for the case to wind its way through the courts. That payment was a mere $509 million, a drop in the bucket for Exxon and nowhere near the actual costs of the still-incomplete cleanup of Prince William Sound.
At the same time, putting the U.S. government, not BP, in control of plugging and cleanup operations makes the U.S. government, not BP, responsible for covering expenses. It turns the U.S. government into an oil company with all the associated incentives. And finally, it puts the whole Gulf mess just that far out of the reach of the Republican Party, and I blanch when I think about what the Republicans would do about America’s hugest spill.
I’m ambivalent about the Seize BP idea. What do you think?