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Brad Pitt on the Death Penalty for Oil Spillers

Years ago my psychology professor told us that in order for punishment to be effective, it must be swift, severe and consistent. The example he used was that if you want a child to stop playing with matches you should immediately hold his hand over a lit stove every time you catch him doing it. Of course, that was an extreme example used to make an important point. But based upon recently published reports, it seems that Hollywood actor Brad Pitt may be of the same mind. According to Mail Online, UK, Brad Pitt has weighed in on the Gulf oil spill controversy and said he would consider the death penalty for those to blame for the disaster which killed 11 men and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. When asked about the people responsible for the crisis, Pitt reportedly said: “I was never for the death penalty before - I am willing to look at it again.” While Mr. Pitt’s comments may seem over the top, and based upon emotion, they raise an important point about compliance.

 

The truth is no regulatory program can be effective without significant consequences being consistently imposed. As a Coast Guard inspector years ago a representative of a barge company admitted to me that the owner had made a conscious business decision to not bring barges in for inspection if they were on charter. The company had half of their fleet operating with expired Certificates of Inspection in violation of federal regulations. The owner’s reasoning was that any fine that the Coast Guard might issue would be less money than he would lose by taking the barges off charter and bringing them in for inspection. In this case he was correct, and then some. Following an internal disagreement between two departments on how to address the issue, the barge company received no fine at all.

 

But even when a fine is issued, is it severe enough to compel compliance, or is it just seen as the cost of doing business? According to CBS 60 Minutes, BP was fined $108 million dollars for the disastrous 2005 Texas City refinery explosion. That seems like a great deal of money, but perhaps not to BP. Was it significant enough to inspire a cultural shift?

 

Surely we will see a number of changes as a result of the recent Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, and perhaps the process of assessing fines will be reviewed as well. Assessing fines based upon a percentage of a company’s gross revenue might not be perceived as fair, but might be more effective in compelling compliance from companies with the greatest resources. Although a rational solution of any kind might not appease someone considering the death penalty.

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