BP is guilty of gross negligence for its role in the disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a federal judge ruled this morning. The company may be forced to pay up to $18 billion in penalties, according to Bloomberg News. At least 80 percent of these fines will be funneled directly into environmental restoration, per the Restore Act, says Brian Moore, Audubon’s legislative director. 

“It changes altogether the scope of the restoration of the Gulf,” Moore says. 

The explosion and resulting spill killed 11 people and caused immeasurable environmental damage, including killing thousands of birds. Leaked oil is still hurting birds in the area years after the 2010 disaster.

In 2012 BP accepted criminal responsibility for the disaster, and the company has already paid fines and restitution totaling $4.5 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported. Following the announcement of the additional fines from the gross negligence decision this morning, BP shares fell more than 6 percent. 

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier held the trial without a jury, and did not rule on how much oil was ultimately spilled in months after the rig explosion. That figure will ultimately determine the eventual fine BP pays—the Clean Water Act dictates that $4,300 is paid per barrel of oil spilled. The company is expected to appeal the decision, which could delay payment on the fines for years. 

“It is a long-awaited step toward healing and recovery for the Gulf Coast, its birds and its people,” says Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold. “BP said it was above the law; Judge Barbier said the law applies to everyone, even multinational giants.”

Previous fines paid by BP and other responsible parties have already been filtered toward restoration efforts in the Gulf, but this decision was “the last thing we were waiting on,” Moore says. “This is the final and biggest piece—the piece that will help fund the most important conservation.” 

In his decision, Barbier concluded that of the guilty parties, BP was found 67 percent responsible; Transocean was found 30 percent responsible, and Halliburton was found 3 percent responsible. Transocean, which owned the faulty rig, and Halliburton Co., responsible for the well’s cement work, were both found to be simply negligent in the disaster, rather than grossly so. 

“This was the largest oil spill in the nation’s history,” says Moore, “and it deserves the largest fine.” 

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