Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Criminal Charges for BP?

Some people are calling for criminal charges against British Petroleum and Transocean, the companies that caused the biggest environmental disaster in living memory.

I am inclined to make a distinction here. On the one hand, some individual might through negligence or malice have have broken the law. Given that the fireball that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon platform killed eleven people, homicide charges are not unthinkable. Maybe someone should go to prison for this.

On the other hand, the government might end up fining BP, not an individual but the corporation itself, as it has in the past, for "environmental crimes." That I am against, for a very simple reason: it would amount to forcing one bad guy to give money to another bad guy.

BP is the target of over 150 lawsuits so far. That is potentially a good thing. The reason is not that it would make BP suffer. Aside from the fact that it is doubtful that corporate bodies can suffer (remember Lord Thurlow's aphorism: "a corporation has no soul to damn and no pants to kick"), lawsuits have a much more constructive function than mere revenge. The function of tort law, unlike criminal law, is to compel wrongdoers to literally "make good," to compensate their innocent victims with cash payments.

By contrast, if BP is fined for corporate crimes, that too is a payment of money, but in this case the cash goes not to its victims but to the government. There is a big difference between the government and the people who are suing BP: the government is not innocent in this matter.

In case that is not obvious to you, ask yourself: why on Earth are we drilling for oil in mile-deep water, in the complete absence of a technology adequate to fix mishaps when they happen? Don't you suppose there are places on dry land, say, in Alaska, or in the vast Federal lands in the western states, where they could be drilling instead? Why would a greedy business corporation be doing something as expensive and dangerous -- to itself as well as everyone else -- as what it is doing? The answer is obvious.

Any dollar BP gives to the feds will be a dollar that is not available to its victims and its customers, and they deserve it a lot more than the government does.
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