On June 9, 2010 President Barack Obama told Americans he wanted to know whose “ass to kick” as oil spewed from the Macondo well for a 50th day.
The belligerent intervention underlined the mounting pressure the White House was under, but also saw the crisis scale fresh heights for BP. Its (Euronext: ALITS.NX - news) share price was down more than a third since the spill and financial markets were questioning the energy company’s future.
Fast forward to yesterday and, less than a fortnight after Mr Obama’s re-election to the White House, BP has reached a $4.5bn (£2.8bn) settlement with government prosecutors over the worst offshore spill in America’s history. The speed of the deal suggests that both parties were waiting for last week’s voting to be out of the way before putting pen to paper.
Eric Holder, US attorney general, chose to announce the settlement in New Orleans in a bid to emphasis there will be benefits to those most affected by the 4.9m barrels of oil that spewed into the Gulf waters.
Business leaders in the city broadly welcomed the settlement but said the penalties should be spent on restoring the damaged Gulf coast. “The sentiment towards BP is that mistakes were clearly made,” said Michael Hecht, chief executive of the Greater New Orleans, an organisation promoting the city's growth. “BP now has the chance to play a lead role in restoring the coast on which our future prosperity will depend.”
BP itself has already spent $14bn cleaning up the spill and in March agreed a $7.8bn settlement with local businesses and individuals. But more than two and a half years since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, there remain concerns about long-term damage to the environment and wildlife.
Yesterday's settlement "could and should have placed greater weight on the environmental damages that occurred," said David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former prosecutor at the Department of Justice.
Although the deal is a significant one, BP faces more hurdles and fines. A trial to judge the civil claims for damages from the US government and the Gulf states is due to start in February in New Orleans. BP has said it is not prepared to settle at any price, but it will also want to avoid the publicity of a lengthy trial.
Before the 2010 spill, BP’s biggest environmental and human disaster in the US was an explosion at its Texas City refinery in 2005 that killed 15 people. BP sold that refinery last month. But the company has no intention nor cannot it afford to of leaving the US.
So Americans can expect more television adverts pledging BP's commitment to the US as the company battles to win back public opinion.