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What Does BP's Landmark Oil Spill Ruling Mean For Wildlife?

<p>Flickr/josue armando serrano</p>

A ruling has been handed down on the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry - the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A federal judge found that gross negligence on the part of the oil and gas company BP caused the spill. BP was ordered to pay billions of dollars more in penalties.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier wrote in a decision released on Thursday:

"BP's conduct was reckless. Transocean's conduct was negligent. Halliburton's conduct was negligent."

The ruling could quadruple the amount that BP was ordered to pay previously in fines for polluting the Gulf of Mexico with an estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil over 87 days. It could face up to $17.6 billion in civil fines under the Clean Water Act.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The decision divided fault for the disaster between three companies: 67 percent for BP, 30 percent for Transocean and 3 percent for Halliburton. BP has already announced that it will appeal the ruling, arguing that the finding was "not supported by the evidence at trial."

The news comes as a welcome step forward for environmentalists and wildlife advocates. The ruling is the highest penalty that can be levied against a violator of the Clean Water Act. (BP is already paying $2.6 billion in penalties for criminal violations as a result of the spill.)

"It affects wildlife tremendously," Brian Moore, a spokesperson for the Audubon Society, told The Dodo. "It's a disaster we haven't seen in the states on this level - ever. It deserves the highest penalty we can give it under current laws. The penalties go to federal and state agencies implementing restoration actions in the Gulf."

Some of the most affected species were brown pelicans, sea turtles, dolphins, and fish populations. These and other losses contributed to a major upheaval in the marine ecosystem and cascading effects throughout the food web.

(Flickr/Louisiana GOHSEP)

The area affected by the spill was home to 8,332 species - many of which were decimated in the aftermath of the spill and its cleanup efforts. Last year - three years after the spill - the area was still being described as an "ecosystem in crisis."

The exact amount of the fine has yet to be set, but the new ruling could mean a boost in efforts to help affected wildlife in the area. If BP does eventually pay up, it's likely that a large portion of the fines will go toward sorely-needed wildlife and coastal restoration. Under the RESTORE Act, passed by Congress in 2012, 80 percent of fines paid by BP and other parties are invested directly into areas affected by the disaster.

"This means that BP will finally be forced to pay what it owes to fix what it broke," said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold in an emailed statement. "Is is a long-awaited step toward healing and recovery for the Gulf Coast, its birds and its people. BP said it was above the law; Judge Barbier said the law applies to everyone, even multinational giants."

Jeff Pierce, a litigation fellow with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, noted that while this is a big step forward, the battle for animals facing the threat of pollution is far from won. He told The Dodo in an email:

In theory all wildlife, whether aquatic or terrestrial, should benefit from any increased vigilance that results from industry's now heightened awareness that a federal judge may someday scrutinize their oversights and mishandling that lead to environmental catastrophe. Nonetheless, wildlife – including those in the Gulf of Mexico – remain under constant threat from otherwise lawful industrial practices ... even a welcome finding like Judge Barbier's ruling addresses only a fraction of the problem wildlife face.