Epstein Argues Against Punitive Damages and Prosecutions in BP Spill

BP's Endless Nightmare In The Gulf
Richard A. Epstein
June 7, 2010

Last month I wrote in my Forbes column that the tort liability system offered the best way to control the kinds of horrific pollution that spewed forth from BP’s Deepwater Horizon well. The simple proposition is that solvent defendants who face huge economic losses have strong economic incentives to get things right. Those incentives are not a perfect substitute for direct regulation that might have prevented the blowouts in the first place. But federal regulation is also, to say the least, too imperfect in its design and execution. The two systems have to be treated as complements, not substitutes.

Yet as the spills continue to spread in the Gulf of Mexico, toward the Florida Coast and perhaps as far as Europe, tempers get short and anger rises. Now there is a palpable sense throughout the land of wanting to get even with BP ( BP - news - people ) for the sins it has inflicted on the environment. These fears are fanned by the near equal frustration with the Obama administration, which has been (perhaps unavoidably) a helpless onlooker to the Gulf devastation. For all his great rhetoric skills, no one should suppose that the president can fix the mess on the ground, or can empower any government agency to do so. It is better to be angry at Obama for his health care and labor policies, not this.

Richard A. Epstein