Punishing BP: 6 brutal proposals

Commentators are calling for heads to roll at BP — literally, in some cases — over its disastrous Gulf oil spill. What's the appropriate penalty?

How should BP pay for the oil spill in the Gulf?
(Image credit: Flickr)

Eleven people are dead and the Gulf of Mexico has become ground zero of America's worst-ever oil spill. Who's to blame? In the eyes of most commentators, BP tops the list. More than a month after the Deepwater Horizon blew up and crude began spewing into sea, almost three quarters of Americans say BP is doing a "poor" or "very poor" job dealing with the accident, according to a new USA Today/Gallup poll, and calls to punish the oil giant are gaining in volume. But what's the right penalty? Here are six disciplinary options that have been floated by pundits and advocacy groups:

1. Make BP pay and pay and pay

Congressional Democrats, worried that BP will leave taxpayers footing the bill for the oil spill, are trying to ensure that BP pays big. The main event is trying to raise BP's federal civil liability limit to $10 billion, from $75 million (Republicans have blocked the effort). But that may just be the beginning: The federal government can, and probably will, fine BP $4,300 for each barrel of oil spilled. Add in clean-up and legal costs, and BP's on the hook for "tens of billions," says University of Michigan environmental law professor David Uhlmann. That may not be unrealistic: In the past decade, BP has booked profits of $163 billion.

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2. Void all its government contracts

Even before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Environmental Protection Agency was weighing whether to declare BP ineligible for all U.S. government contracts based on four separate cases of criminal conduct in the past decade. The most severe form of the penalty, would terminate all BP's deals with the federal government (including, for instance, military gasoline purchases) and potentially bar the company from drilling on public land. If enacted, this penalty could cost BP up to $16 billion annually in lost revenue, according to one estimate.

3. Kill the company

It's time to really give BP the "corporate death penalty — being shut down, dissolved, and having their assets sold off," says progressive talk radio host Thom Hartmann in The Huffington Post. All this death and destruction result from the company's reckless and shortsighted desire "to save a little money." And killing BP in return would hardly be unprecedented: In America's first 100 years, we shut down an average of 2,000 "rogue corporations" each year.

4. Boycott BP, far and wide

Consumer watchdog Public Citizen has launched a rare boycott effort of BP brands — BP, Arco, Castrol, Amoco, Safeway Gas, and AM/PM minimarts — joining a growing "Boycott BP" movement on Facebook and Twitter. Boycott proponents are especially incensed that BP has touted itself as a "green" company. "We want to punish BP," says Public Citizen's Tyson Slocum. "We want to send a message that a company cannot just purchase an image that it is socially conscious."

5. Throw the executives in jail

BP executives should be prosecuted for the involuntary manslaughter of the 11 dead oil rig workers, says Paul Abrams in The Huffington Post, and "there is sufficient legal precedent" for sending them to jail. "Had [someone] driven a car into a crowded sidewalk and killed 11 people, today that person would be sitting in jail with 11 manslaughter charges against them," agrees Gary Ater in American Chronicle. The idea of imprisoning BP decision-makers is also a popular theme on Facebook and blog posts.

6. Execute CEO Tony Hayward

MSNBC host Chris Matthews also called for jail time for BP CEO Tony Hayward — but then he appeared to go one step further: "In China, it's a more brutal society — a more brutal society," Matthews said on "Hardball" Monday, "but they execute people for this, major industrial leaders that commit crimes like this, failure like this." (Just saying...)

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