Bloomberg News has done some investigative reporting into Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and it’s enforcement of the state’s oil pollution regulations (which aren’t to stringent to start with). The full report is behind a paywall, bu the Columbia Journalism Review has published part of it here.
Louisiana DEQ has a grand total of eight spill responders for the entire state, relying on industry to self-report, clean-up, and monitor their spills. State law requires notification within 24 hours (that’s how “prompt” is defined in regulation), and that the discharger take “reasonable” actions in response to the discharge. State response actions are covered by a response fund. The response fund is financed by a $0.02/barrel tax, and is capped at $7 million (roughly the amount spent in two days during the BP Macondo spill).
Most oil spills are small. But there are a lot of them in Louisiana—4,000 a year, which is more than any other state. And even when they are relatively large, they’re as likely as not to go unpenalized. The state’s average fine is 93% less than the federal government’s average fine for spills in Louisiana.
Bloomberg’s researchers (Ken Wells, Aaron Kuriloff and Charles R. Babcock) found that the state fines oil companies for oil spills less than 1 percent of the time over the last five years.
In 2009, Louisiana punished oil companies for fewer than one in 100 spills, the data show. Fines are measured in thousands of dollars, not millions. They take years to collect and are seldom levied against even repeat spillers. A small gas station operator was penalized for faulty paperwork while the state’s biggest oil producer paid no fines in more than a dozen spills since 2002, according to state records.
Louisiana has never pressed criminal charges for oil spills, because, as state regulators see it, oil is a valuable product that no company would willfully or negligently spill:
“Oil is a valuable product,” said Rodney Mallett, DEQ press secretary. “Rarely will someone knowingly or deliberately discharge oil.”
Hilcorp Energy Co., the state’s largest oil producer, has had thirteen (documented) spills since 2002. The largest incident, in December 2002, totaled 1,000 barrels, creating a “dead zone” in 7 acres of cypress forest in the Atchafalaya Basin about 130 miles west of New Orleans.
Bloomberg reports that Hilcorp faced a fine of about $32,000—but Louisiana let it off the hook with no penalty. Bloomberg is good to juxtapose those numbers with how much the company makes in Louisiana: It produced half a billion dollars worth of oil in the state last year alone.
Bloomberg also gets some very good on-the-record quotes, including this one from a former state oil inspector:
From 1982 to 1997, Kerry St. Pe recommended fines in “hundreds and hundreds of cases” as a DEQ inspector in southeastern Louisiana, he says.
“But in terms of actual penalties that were levied based on my investigations, I can count them on one hand,” said St. Pe, 60, a marine biologist who now heads the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program in southeastern Louisiana. He said the main reason was “political pressure to the contrary,” which he described as a sense that vigorous enforcement in the field was being discouraged in Baton Rouge, the state capital.
“When oil companies see it’s cheaper to pollute than to prevent spills, it creates a culture of noncompliance,” St. Pe said.
And it gets an excellent kicker from St. Pe:
“Corporations are like children,” he says. “If you allow your kids to have all the candy they want, you’ll get them fat and all keyed up on sugar. And when you then try to discipline them, you wonder why they won’t listen. It’s the same with these corporations. In Louisiana, they virtually get everything they ask for, so why should they behave?”