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BP’s Total Liability: $80 Billion and Counting?

Earlier today I tried to get a handle on BP’s total liability for the Gulf oil disaster, given the new estimates of the spill rate. Street Insider actually came up with a higher figure than I expected, using a thumbnail metric from a Goldman Sachs per-barrel estimate:

If 40,000 barrels per day has been leaking from the well, then there could be nearly 2 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. This would put BP’s estimated liability at $80 billion, based on an estimated from Goldman Sachs analysts that it will cost $40,000 per barrel for clean-up, litigation and other costs related to the spill.

Since a containment cap was placed on the gusher, BP said it has collected nearly 100,000 barrels and is currently collecting at a rate of about 15,000 barrels per day. This would put the amount continuing to spill into the Gulf at about 25,000 barrels per day.

If it takes another 50 days, let’s say, to drill the relief wells, we’re talking about another 1.25 million barrels. And using the Goldman metric, you’re up to $130 BILLION dollars in cost. BP currently holds net assets of around $105 billion.

And I would assume that the Goldman estimate of $40,000/barrel is under current law, not factoring in potential changes to the law – like Patrick Leahy’s Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act, or a retroactive lifting of the liability cap (though the Constitutionality there isn’t clear-cut), or some sort of Civilian Conservation Corps to clean up the region (federal legislation may be soon in coming on that front) or what Douglas Brinkley discussed with Anderson Cooper last night, essentially a Tennessee Valey Authority-like project for the Gulf region:


And it’s one of the reasons why the president is not talking to Tony Hayward. And they are going to come out with a large Gulf recovery act, because the oil and gas industry has been dredging. We have disappearing barrier islands. For 40 years down there, it’s abused the wetlands.

This is a turning point. There is an appetite on Capitol Hill for Gulf recovery act. The Mississippi River is going to have to be redirected into the marshlands. And BP and Transocean and other, you know, operations, Cameron, other companies are going to have to pay up to $10 billion and $15 billion for breaking national acts […] in the next year or two, this will be, for President Obama administration, I think something a Tennessee Valley Authority or a Saint Lawrence Seaway under Dwight Eisenhower, a major public works act, with BP…


BRINKLEY: … the bill.

So that number could expand, with BP – and its co-conspirators, let’s not forget Transocean and Cameron and even Halliburton in this – on the hook for essentially the entire worth of its company.

UPDATE: Chris Hayes of The Nation has a pretty good response to all of this, basically saying that BP, armed with a flotilla of lawyers and dealing with a corporate-friendly judicial system, will basically escape unharmed. That may well be true, but it’s crucial that the variables we control – how much oil has spilled, all the relevant statutes and crimes applicable – create a perception of liability, because in the business world, perception often becomes reality.

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David Dayen

David Dayen