UK offers no civil redress for North Sea oil spills

As news broke today that BP is being sued in the US over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an environmental legal expert has warned that no such civil redress could […]

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By Kelvin Ross

As news broke today that BP is being sued in the US over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an environmental legal expert has warned that no such civil redress could happen in the UK if such a disaster happened in the North Sea.

BP is among eight companies named in a civil suit being brought under the Clean Water Act for the Gulf of Mexico disaster in April, which saw 11 workers killed and caused the largest offshore spill in US offshore history.

James Thornton is an environmental lawyer who brought 80 federal lawsuits against corporations to enforce the Clean Water Act when the Reagan Administration stopped enforcing the law. He won all of these cases and embarrassed the government into enforcing the law again.

Now he is chief executive of environmental law organisation ClientEarth, and today he said: “Under the Clean Water Act, penalties of up to $4,300 per barrel can be imposed for the 4.9m barrels spilled. Under the Oil Pollution Act, BP and its associated companies can be made to pay for the damages of the spill including all clean-up costs.

“Beyond these, criminal penalties are available, and the United States is investigating them. While the spill is a tragedy, this legal regime provides a powerful and sophisticated response.”

But Mr Thornton added: “Unfortunately, nothing comparable exists in European Law. If a similar spill happened in the North Sea – and it could -there would be no meaningful redress under the law. We have called for new legislation to plug this huge hole in the law.”

While unveiling the government Electricity Reform package today, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne pointed to the Deepwater Horizon disaster as an example for “the rising risks of extracting fossil fuels”.