HOUSTON — In front of a huge crowd of fellow oil and natural-gas executives at a major conference here last year, BP chief executive Robert Dudley apologized for his company’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring and summer of 2010. It was a heartfelt speech and Dudley’s first since the spill, which gushed more than 200 million gallons of oil.
One year later at the same conference, Dudley is not speaking, and BP makes only a small appearance on the entire five-day schedule. In fact, the spill has barely come up during several panel discussions and major keynote talks on the oil industry.
The only executive from a major U.S.-based oil company speaking this year is ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who is scheduled to address the conference on Friday.
“I’m going to talk about the [natural] gas market,” said Paolo Scaroni, CEO of the Italian oil and natural-gas company Eni, at a luncheon keynote discussion on Tuesday. That’s the topic oil and gas executives are focusing on the most, seemingly in lieu of the lingering aftereffects of the BP oil spill.
Vast reserves of shale natural gas discovered all over the United States—and increasingly around the world—have the oil and gas industry captivated by their potential. Indeed, natural gas seems to seep into most discussions at the IHS Cambridge Energy Resource Associates annual conference here, which brings together more than 300 experts and executives from the global-energy industry.
But BP’s spill is still very much on the forefront of many people’s minds, especially in light of the news last week that the British oil giant has agreed to a $7.8 billion settlement with thousands of people and businesses seeking damages from the spill.
Restoration activities in the wake of the spill are also far from over.
“The cleanup continues to happen,” Louisiana Secretary of Natural Resources Scott Angelle told National Journal Daily on Tuesday. “BP has made a commitment to be there until the last drop is removed, and we hold them at their word.”
While most of the surface oil that spewed into the Gulf in 2010 has been skimmed, burned, or broken down by dispersants, tar balls and subsurface oil mats are still turning up on Gulf beaches. There are also concerns about petroleum compounds that may have settled to the ocean floor, affecting coral reefs and deep-sea marine animals.
“There has been progress,” Angelle said. “We have a very robust natural resources damage-assessment test going through Louisiana.”
Angelle would not comment on BP’s proposed settlement with thousands of plaintiffs in a massive civil case still under way in the New Orleans courtroom of U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier. The settlement must still be approved by the judge, and it does not end civil cases filed against BP and its partners by the Justice Department and attorneys general from Gulf states.
But Angelle did say that he is still hoping Congress can pass legislation that would require 80 percent of any fines and penalties paid by BP to the federal government to go back into restoration efforts in the Gulf. Some analysts say BP could be facing more than $20 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act, and all the money would go into the federal treasury unless directed otherwise by Congress.
A bill requiring just that was approved by the House last month as part of its transportation package; a companion bill in the Senate was approved by the Environment and Public Works Committee last fall but has not yet made it to the floor.
“Washington is a tough place,” Angelle said. “We’ve just got to keep working to the last day to get it there.”
With Congress failing to act so far, Angelle said he is also working with other parts of the federal government, including the judicial and executive branches, “to get those funds to the impacted states.”
This article appears in the March 7, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.