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Give BP the Death Penalty
(Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh / Flickr)

Give BP the Death Penalty

(Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh / Flickr)

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What does it take for a foreign corporation to get the corporate death penalty in America? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves, after news broke yesterday of BP’s legal settlement over its Gulf oil spill disaster in 2010.

Eleven workers were killed when their oil rig exploded, and for three months five million barrels of toxic crude gushed in the Gulf of Mexico as BP, which never made contingency plans for this sort of obvious crisis, tried to find a way to plug the hole. That oil killed marine life, blanketed coastlines, and put Gulf Coast small businesses out of business. To this day, we still don’t know the long-term effects of this catastrophe on the ecosystem or our food chain, which is now contaminated with eyeless shrimp, clawless crabs, and other oil-mutated aquatic freak shows. Not to mention the human cancers that will show up in future decades.

Now, the foreign corporation responsible for all of this, BP, will just cut a small check, and then go back to business as usual, punching holes in the Gulf. It pled guilty to 14 felony and misdemeanor charges and agreed to pay a $4.5 billion fine – the largest criminal fine in our nation’s history. But for a corporation that just announced it earned $5.4 billion in three months, BP knows it got off easy.

The organization Public Citizen notes, “Claims arising from the Gulf disaster, which killed 11 workers and did untold damage, put the company’s liability at a minimum of $51.5 billion.” That’s more than ten-times what BP will end up paying to settle.

As part of the settlement, the government still reserves the right to charge two BP employees for manslaughter. It will likely be two low-level workers who’ll have to take the fall for an entire corporation – and industry – that repeatedly ignored regulations and cut safety corners, just to maximize their quarterly profits. Because of our two-tiered justice system, rarely do corporate suits go to jail.

Altogether, this settlement will do very little to change the corrupt scam oil barons are running on the American people. As a spokesperson for Public Citizen said, “We’re stunned. This settlement is pathetic … The point of the criminal justice system is twofold: to punish and to deter. This does neither.”

In a tragic irony that proves Public Citizen’s point, news broke on Friday of another oilrig exploding off the coast of Louisiana. Early reports indicate two workers are dead and another two workers are missing.

Perhaps if our criminal justice system had taken swifter action against BP and followed through by banning the company from doing business in the United States, the entire industry might shape up. And maybe, just maybe, a group of oilmen in Louisiana would still be alive today.

Our nation has a long history with the corporate death penalty. Beginning in the early 1800’s, laws were passed in several states to make it easier for legislators to revoke corporate charters if businesses are operating against the public’s interest. And this routinely happened.

In Ohio, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania banks were shut down for being “financially unsound.” In New York and Massachusetts, corporations that ran the turnpikes were given a corporate death sentence for not keeping the roads in good repair.

By 1825, 20 states had amended their constitutions to make it easier for the state to “revoke, alter, or annul” corporate charters whenever a corporation, “may be injurious to citizens of the community.”

And in just one year, 1832, the state of Pennsylvania sentenced ten corporations to death, revoking their charters for “operating contrary to the public interest.”

This continued into the late 1800’s when whiskey trusts, sugar corporations, and OIL CORPORATIONS were all put to death in several states across the nation. In New York, workers petitioned the state Supreme Court to slay the beast that is Standard Oil for labor abuses. In 1894, the court obliged and revoked Standard Oil’s corporate charter in that state.

And yet, here we are today, more than a century later, with the Gulf of Mexico ruined, 11 men dead, and countless other lives ruined. And the overseas corporation responsible for all this mess still has free rein to do business anywhere it wants in the United States, because our justice system has been neutered by corporate power.

If corporate charters were contingent on corporations operating in the best interests of the public, as they used to be, then our nation would get some long-overdue for some corporate death sentences. The big five oil companies – ConocoPhillips, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP – dump a billion pounds of carbon pollution into the atmosphere every day, fueling asthma and cancer epidemics in local communities. But they don’t have to pay for these externalities caused by their pollution, we the taxpayers have to pay for the extra burden on our healthcare system. Just like we, and not the oil companies, have to pay for our military machine that keeps the oil lanes open so these companies can make billions.

Do we even get cheap gasoline for all of this? No. No matter how you slice it, these oil companies, especially BP, are not operating in the public interest – and need to be put down. They’ve broken their contract with “We the People.”

And unless we want to continue to see smoldering oil rigs just off our coast and massive oil slicks in our waters, then we must bring back the corporate death penalty.