A federal judge let London-based BP Exploration and Production plead guilty to manslaughter charges for the deaths of 11 rig workers and pay a record $4 billion in penalties for the 2010 oil spill that lasted more than three months and spewed 200 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.
But the plea deal approved by U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance doesn’t resolve the federal government's civil claims against BP. The oil giant could pay billions more for environmental damage, the Associated Press reported.
BP also separately agreed to a settlement with lawyers for Gulf Coast residents and businesses who say the spill cost them money. BP estimates that the deal with private attorneys will cost the company roughly $7.8 billion.
A series of government investigations blamed the April 20, 2010, blowout on time-saving, cost-cutting decisions by BP and its partners on the drilling project.
Vance noted that the company already has racked up more than $24 billion in spill-related expenses and has estimated that it will pay a total of $42 billion to fully resolve its liability for the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The judge said the $4 billion criminal settlement is "just punishment" for BP, even though the company could have paid far more without going broke. In accepting the deal, Vance also cited the risk that a trial could result in a much lower fine for BP, one potentially capped by law at $8.2 million.
The criminal settlement calls for BP to pay nearly $1.3 billion in fines. The largest previous corporate criminal penalty assessed by the Justice Department was a $1.2 billion fine against drugmaker Pfizer in 2009.
The plea deal also includes payments of nearly $2.4 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences. The two groups will administer the money to fund Gulf restoration and oil spill prevention projects.
The $4 billion in total penalties are 160 times greater than the $25 million fine that Exxon paid for the 1989 Valdez spill in Alaska, Vance noted.
Before she ruled, the judge heard an apology from a BP executive and emotional testimony from relatives of the 11 workers who died when BP's blown-out Macondo well triggered an explosion on the rig and started the spill.
Vance told victims' relatives in court that she weighed their "truly gut-wrenching" statements in her decision and believed BP executives should have personally apologized to family members long before Tuesday's hearing.
BP agreed in November to plead guilty to charges involving the workers' deaths and for lying to Congress about the size of the spill from its broken well. Much of it ended up in the Gulf and soiled the shorelines of several states. The company could have withdrawn from the agreement if Vance had rejected it.
Four current or former BP employees have been indicted. BP rig supervisors Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine are charged with manslaughter, accused of repeatedly disregarding abnormal high-pressure readings that should have been glaring indications of trouble just before the blowout.
David Rainey, BP's former vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, was charged with withholding information from Congress about the amount of oil that was gushing from the well.
Former BP engineer Kurt Mix was charged with deleting text messages about the company's spill response.