Your most creative, incisive, and sadistic ideas for how to punish BP.

Commentary about business and finance.
June 2 2010 3:56 PM

How To Punish BP

Your most creative, incisive, and sadistic ideas for how to make the company suffer.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Our call for reader suggestions on how to punish BP and its executives for the oil spill hit a nerve. It inspired more than 120 comments and several dozen e-mailed suggestions, including a few in French from readers. (Merci!)

After combing through and categorizing the responses, my conclusion is that you are in a very angry and vindictive mood, eager to hit BP, its executives, and its shareholders where it hurts. There were multiple calls for shutting down the company, seizing its assets, and imposing various legal and extra-legal sanctions on its executives.

The two most popular proposed punishments are also the most likely to actually occur. Nearly 30 readers demanded that BP pay a severe financial penalty. The federal government and the plaintiffs' bar will almost certainly ensure that it does. And 18 of you advocated criminal prosecution of the company and its executives, a strategy that the Justice Department may be pursuing.

You proposed several other interesting punishments as well.

Beyond petroleum.Nearly eight years ago, I wrote a piece debunking BP's "Beyond Petroleum" advertising campaign. The oil company's efforts to paint itself as a firm for which hydrocarbons were only a small part of business was laughable. But this spill could actually force BP to go beyond petroleum. Several readers suggested compelling BP to use the cash it earns from its frequently reckless extraction and processing of fossil fuels to fund the transition to different energy sources. Karen suggested we could require BP "to use a certain percentage of their profits per year in research and development of alternative energy resources, with a requirement that some amount of new tech is made reasonably available to consumers within a certain timeframe."  Nathalie tagged that percentage at 50 percent of all future profits, plus $75 million, which should go into hydrogen fuel-cell development. Judith Gill proposed that BP match, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, the damages it causes with funding for clean-energy technology.

The Glamour magazine approach.There's a time-honored technique for exacting revenge on the boyfriend who hurt you. Don't get mad. Slim down and get a makeover that will make him rue the day he dumped you. Several readers suggest we forget about trying to get BP to fund the transition away from oil and just get on with it ourselves. Let's start biking, increase gas taxes to discourage driving, build electric cars, and, most of all, build nuclear power plants. Then we won't need BP. Writes Todd Bridges (that Todd Bridges?): "If the average environmentalist had not been so adamant against nuclear power in the early '80s we might not be having all of the problems we've had over the last 10 years, most of which have to do with oil."  "Embrace nuclear power and electric cars," says Cameron MacPherson. "Enough is enough—it's clean, it's much safer now than it was 40 years ago, it removes our dependence on foreign oil."

The Freakonomics approach.Several readers suggested changing incentives to encourage BP and other oil companies to be better citizens. Raising the price of failure and increasing the rewards of success in protecting the environment could be a more powerful tool than regulation or the threat of prosecution. John James suggested a fee/reward system, under which "the company's record is assessed once a year with a 10-year look-back on a set of metrics—spills, injuries, deaths, equipment failures as well as green investments/innovations, safety innovations, cleanup/response innovations, etc. Each comes with a fee based on severity or a reward based on effectiveness. Each year the company's balance from the assessment is collected/disbursed and published." Several readers suggested tinkering with taxes on pollution. "What about a Super Tax to be imposed only on those found guilty of pollution?" asks Gary Ross. The tax, based on gross income, would levy a fee per barrel of spilled oil. Aaron Martin suggested "a graduated tax penalty that increases exponentially with each infraction? …  You can also add an escalator clause that kicks in after, I don't know, 35 days of unsuccessfully managing of the crisis." Karl Marschel suggested boosting the per-barrel tax each company pays into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, "but have that tax ratchet down if a company goes a certain amount of time without incident. … If you tripled the per barrel tax to $15, each company would then be competing to reduce incidents." 

The Quentin Tarantino approach.Get medieval on the executives. Devise punishments that make them physically feel the pain they have caused to others. On this score, our readers were quite imaginative. Nick Inzalaco: "Hit BP executives over the head with every last one of the dead fish." Chad Brick suggested "seppuku for the executives of any firm that colossally screws up." Or we could take all the responsible executives and politicians "coat them all completely in crude oil and throw them in jail until their skin suffocates." Others suggested sentencing BP executives to spend their time cleaning up oil-covered birds. My favorite came from Becca: Raise money to fix the problem by letting BP execs participate in a dunk tank—filled with polluted gulf water.

I had promised there would be prizes and was thinking I'd buy BP gas cards for the most incisive, imaginative, interesting, of off-the-wall ones. But I figured that would go over about as well as a Gulf shrimp po'boy. So, instead, it'll be Starbucks gift cards. Have a latte on me. The winners should write to me——to claim their prizes.

And those winners are:

Robert Posey, for the best impression of Dick Cheney. "Two words: 'Extraordinary rendition.' Let's see how their executives like Chinese jails, or Syrian, or perhaps North Korean."

Commenter Lunchbreath gets the Robert Frost poetic justice award. "Make BP invest heavily in alternative energy projects and sustainable farming based specifically in communities whose industries have been hit hardest by the spill. Fish farming, wind farms, wind fishing, whatever."

Slate V: BP's Blame Game

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