Wednesday, May 04, 2016

How the government got BP to pay the biggest environmental penalty in history

The first order of business when John Cruden took over as the Justice Department's top environmental lawyer was holding BP financially accountable for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill that fouled the Gulf of Mexico with millions of barrels of oil. The best way to do that, Cruden believed, was to settle the costly and contentious legal fight between his department and the oil giant. But the former Green Beret was worried about entering negotiations with a weak hand, particularly after BP had rebuffed a sizable 2013 deal. So when a court-appointed mediator suggested reaching out to BP to reopen talks, Cruden surprised the respected magistrate judge by demurring. “They can come to me," he said, smiling confidently. It was a risky, audacious move -- and it worked. What followed was the largest environmental settlement in the Justice Department’s history. With the $20.8-billion deal formally approved last month by a federal judge in New Orleans, Cruden, other Justice Department officials and independent mediators are discussing for the first time how they nailed down an agreement that could become the model for future environmental disasters. The settlement is also a professional capstone of sorts for Cruden, a career Justice Department environmental attorney who had overseen some of the division’s biggest cases, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill, toxic dumping at Love Canal, N.Y., and a $1-billion interim settlement with BP to fund restoration projects in the Gulf. Cruden had retired from the department in 2011, but was coaxed by the White House to return, and in January 2015, he took over as the assistant attorney general of the environment and natural resources division. Fortunately for Cruden, he returned just as the BP civil lawsuit was about to enter the penalty phase, after which U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier would decide how big a fine to levy on the company...more

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