January 6, 2012
Strict Criminal Liability, Regulation, and Ben Franklin
Long ago, Ben Franklin warned, "Laws too gentle are seldom obeyed; too severe, seldom executed." Unfortunately, following massive environmental disasters (and financial disasters) legislators and regulators tend to respond to public outcry by seeking better ways to "put the bums in jail" without assessing the real problems.
Building on this point, I wrote my article, Choosing a Better Path: The Misguided Appeal of Increased Criminal Liability after Deepwater Horizon, which was just published in the William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review (available here). In the article, I argue that increased criminal liability for energy company employees is not likely to be effective in preventing disasters like the blowout of BP Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. And increased liability is simply not the best way. The abstract:
Despite the potential appeal of dramatically increased liability and sentences in the wake of environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, this Article argues that more aggressive criminal provisions and enforcement related to environmental harms, up to and including strict criminal liability, are not likely to protect the environment better or lead to safer work environments. This Article first considers the history and legality of, and the rationale behind, policies designed to make it easier to convict allegedly responsible parties and also discusses the pursuit of increased liability in relation to disaster-related and tragedy-related events in the financial and criminal sectors. The Article then discusses the use of reduced burdens and strict liability in environmental law in both civil and criminal contexts, and argues that the use of strict liability is less effective than a negligence standard because it tends to reduce penalties, which can limit the direct punishment to violators, as well as the prophylactic potential of the laws. Finally, the Article concludes that, rather than reducing mens rea standards and increasing criminal liability, U.S. energy and environmental law needs to focus on encouraging proper risk assessment and risk management to promote safe and effective energy extraction and production while encouraging and protecting both the environment and the economy.
What's all of this mean? There are no easy answers, but here's my conclusion:
One of the greatest risks to the continued economic success of energy-related activities is an environmental disaster. As such, disaster avoidance is a benefit to all stakeholders: lawmakers, regulators, oil companies, and people generally have reason to support a safer energy industry. The first step, then, is to adopt a proper mindset to help avoid disasters. Rather than pursuing with vigor penalties to punish a future perpetrator or seeking creative ways to use obscure laws that have a slight chance of success, efforts should look to ways to prevent the next disaster.
This means carefully assessing risk, then developing plans and programs to minimize that risk. This is not something that can happen in a vacuum. It requires coordinated efforts from industry, government, and the public. We all must understand and appreciate the risks before us, then be prepared to accept the costs of our decisions.
Really appreciated this article. Great insight and I gained perspective.
Posted by: Tom Norris | Jan 7, 2012 1:15:02 PM