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Spill Liability: Would Jail Time Work?


Oil companies have little interest or concern in protecting the environment. Oil companies have little incentive to comply with the law. Their interests are to make money, and they do not keep the infrastructure in good environmental shape because that would be more costly than the potential fines and penalties.

The oil companies can pay any fine or penalty easily, so they are no great incentive to get compliance with safety standards. People in charge of the decision making for oil corporations should be held criminally and personally responsible and liable when they are complicit in breaking the law. Jail would get their attention.

I was the attorney for Carpinteria when the devastating 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill took place. A lawsuit was filed by me and a law consortium of four attorneys for Carpinteria, the City of Santa Barbara, the County of Santa Barbara, and the State of California. As the case developed, Union Oil and its unlimited legal representation buried us in paperwork. As a result, Governor Ronald Reagan recognized the importance of the litigation and formally transferred over 50 percent of the State Attorney General’s staff to assist us on the prosecution of Union Oil. The resultant lawsuit was the first major judgment against environmental oil damage. The damages Union Oil paid to the parties were, at the time, considered very substantial.

My experience is that oil companies will try to avoid as much liability as they are able to. I am concerned because, unfortunately, we rely on oil companies to “report to us” the severity of the spills. Our government must act promptly to independently and fully assess the events — past, present, and future — to determine every type of liability, including holding the decision makers personally liable, and ensure that the oil company is held unlimitedly culpable for any and all damage. If the law does not provide adequate liabilities, it should be changed.

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