Thursday, June 17, 2010

Oil Spills, Oil Producers & Governments, Part 2

We might find another illustration of how earlier, and not easily seen, federal government actions could be involved in the BP Gulf Oil spill by wondering about something the President said in his recent OVAL OFFICE SPEECH:
Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party.
I don't understand this idea that the President will tell BP it has a liability for this accident, and further that the President is going to require BP to create an escrow account to be administered by an "independent third party." Don't such actions fall within existing statutes and responsibilities of the courts?

My first thought is to wonder about why the President would think actions such as these are appropriate and necessary. I have assumed all along that BP is liable for the damages caused by the oil spilled because of an accident involved with it's production of oil. I certainly expect that if I caused oil to be spilled on my neighbor's property, that I would be fully liable for the damages my actions caused to my neighbor. So, I assume BP understands already that it is liable for the damages.

This also leads me to wonder about why the President has been spending so much time and effort in his public speeches insisting that BP is going to be made to pay for the environmental harm it has caused. Once again, I assume that in the same way that I know I would be made to pay for harm I cause to others, BP knows it will have to pay for the harm it's actions have caused others.

But, now I think that perhaps I should start to by a bit more of my normal, cynical and dismal economist self. Do I smell a rat?

Perhaps I do. THE OIL POLLUTION ACT OF 1990 "imposes liability for removal costs and damages resulting from an incident in which oil is discharged into navigable waters or adjoining shorelines or the exclusive economic zone." Yep, just what I assumed to be true. But, the Act also limits liability:
Liability is limited by specific dollar amounts, which vary depending on the type of vessel or facility involved. These limits do not apply in the case of gross negligence or willful misconduct or the violation of an applicable federal safety, construction, or operating regulation or for failure to cooperate in certain specified ways.
Oh my, perhaps BP believed it would not be fully liable for the damages caused by an accident that resulted a spill such as is occurring in the Gulf. Can you imagine, Congress created a statute in 1990 (and some President must have signed it) that both made it clear that BP was liable for damage caused by this accident, and at the same time the statute told BP (and all other oil producers in the Gulf) that it's liability was limited, that it would not be fully liable.

Well, you can see the incentives partial liability creates for BP and every other oil producer in the Gulf. At the margin, this limited liability statute should result in BP being at least a little less cautious in it's operations than it would otherwise be. Same incentive and response by all the Gulf oil producers as well. In other words, by limiting liability with this statute Congress and the President did two things: (1) Incentives to produce oil in the Gulf were increased, and (2) the probability of an accident occurring in the Gulf was increased.

Now we come to the second sentence in the limited liability quotation above. I suspect members of Congress also understood the incentives they would create by limiting liability. So, of course, Congress also writes laws that allow for the Executive Branch to regulate how BP, and the other oil producers in the Gulf, go about the business of producing oil from Gulf waters. Do you remember hearing reports after the accident, and before the Oval Office speech, that BP had requested that the government agency overseeing its operations modify several permits in the last day or two before the accident? I'm guessing this indicates that the government regulatory agency was at least supposed to be closely involved in making sure BP's actions met with all the things government thought BP was supposed to be doing.

I think this is another illustration of government's involvement in the actions of people and businesses in the economy that we cannot easily see. It is my view that government should not limit liability, and that especially in the case of deep water oil production government's role should be to strictly enforce full liability.

And, because government regulatory actions are involved in oil production in the Gulf, my default position has to be that government has some part to share in this accident, unless it can be shown that BP violated permits and regulations that if followed would have prevented this specific accident from happening.

Finally, returning to the President's statement quoted above, I think there are some additional serious issues to bring up. I will do that with another post in the future.

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