Aggressive prosecution of environmental and white-collar crimes is required to fill the gap left by “weak to nonexistent enforcement” of regulatory lapses that have led to disasters such as the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill, argues University of Maryland Carey School of Law Professor Rena Stenzior in an essay published in Environmental Law Review.
The essay, entitled “How Environmental Law Can Help Save the Environment,” called the British Petroleum case—in which corporate negligence allegedly led to the 2010 explosion of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and a massive oil spill that left extensive damage to marine life–an example of widespread corporate disdain for regulatory requirements.
She also examined the circumstances surrounding the Volkswagen scandal—in which the car manufacturer admitted to attempting to evade federal emission standards by installing “cheat” software.
The resulting environmental harm in both cases, she argues, might have been avoided if the government had enforced existing regulations. But thanks to what she terms a “relentless campaign against big government” by congressional conservatives and their allies, regulatory agencies have been starved of the resources needed to provide proper oversight. The campaign, she says, has helped contribute to a “White-Collar-Crime boomlet” in the U.S that jeopardizes consumer and worker safety, and threatens public health and the environment.
While criminal prosecution can’t undo the damage, it remains “the last resort” for efforts to bring environmental violators to heel, writes Stenzior.
However, she added, the Department of Justice’s record of white-collar crime prosecutions has been “disappointing.” Although BP had to pay for the oil spill cleanup, including $4 billion in fines, and it let go two executives in the wake of the scandal, the essay suggested stiffer punishment for senior managers, including jail terms, would have helped deter future corporate environmental misbehavior.
Stenzior conceded that prosecutions for environmental law have increased, but she observed, “the most common outcome remains payment by corporations of huge fines, dwarfed only by their net revenues.”
Read Stenzior’s essay here. For additional discussion of prosecution of the DOJ’s failure to go after large environmental polluters, read TCR Contributing Editor Graham Kates’ series, “Environmental Crime: The Prosecution Gap.”