British Petroleum Versus Bhopal

By Parth Chauhan, George Washington University

The headlines on BBC News website on September 19th, 2010, read “Gulf oil spill ‘finally sealed,’” putting an end to a five month ordeal for the citizens of the Gulf of Mexico. [8] On April 20th, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by British Petroleum, exploded, leaving eleven workers dead and an uncontrollable fountain of oil gushing into the Gulf. Over the next few months, efforts to cap the leak saw their effectiveness ebb and flow like the tides of the Gulf; the blowout preventer remained unresponsive, the static kill took months, and a “junk shot” failed. It was only until the relief well was completed in September that the leak stopped spewing oil. In sum, the explosion led to 4.9 million barrels spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. [8] The livelihoods of thousands of fishermen, crabbers, tourism-service providers, and other Gulf Coast-residents were threatened, as millions of fish and sea creatures died on the blackened beaches of Louisiana and Alabama. And yet, as the final feet of the relief well was bored, and as the pressure on the well abated, the end of the crisis was realized. The objective had been reached, and the Deepwater Horizon spill was over, hopefully never to spew black liquid death again . [7]

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was an unheard of ecological catastrophe, a disaster whose magnitude is still being grasped. Despite this, all signs point to the optimistic possibility of a full recovery for the Gulf Coast. The oil-eating bacteria that helped eat up the crude did not create the dreaded “dead-zone” of oxygen-deprived ocean water; thus the massive cleanup crews assembled by BP and the US government were able to contain much of the oil before it reached too many beaches. The Gulf cleanup was effective in part because it required little more than physical labor and human capital; the science behind cleaning the oil was essentially simple spraying and scrubbing. Natural forces, like the current and crude-eating bacteria, sufficiently dissipated the spill. Though many wildlife sanctuaries were greatly damaged, the worst case scenario was not realized. The deaths of the eleven men, while undeniably tragic, was not a calamitous number. Despite all of this, British Petroleum was forced by the US Department of Justice to set aside 20 billion USD for victims, after already spending over 8 billion USD in initial cleanup and recovery efforts. Pressure from the American public and President Barack Obama led to BP’s announcement of the creation of the fund within two months of the explosion, and within weeks, 319 million USD had already been issued out (“BP” 1). Though the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, did step down, further punishments for those found responsible for the spill  processes is still ongoing . [8]

Thus, a British company who victimized the American people came under scrutiny and pressure from the US legal and political system to right its wrongs. This was not the case in Bhopal, India, where an American company was responsible for devastating the region, and yet remained nearly immune to punishment.

On December 3rd, 1984, a gas cylinder in the Union Carbide pesticide plant reacted with water and exploded, spewing forty tones of poisonous gas over Bhopal, a town of one million people. By the 6th, 8,000 people were killed, followed by tens of thousands of deaths in the next months. The poison’s effects remained in the area, affecting 600,000 people at the time. For years, the people have continually suffered; they lacked the scientific expertise to contain and cleanup the gas, and the company did little to help. Even today, the groundwater in Bhopal is likely still contaminated, and the children of the region are known to have disproportionally high rates of many genetic diseases. [5] The exact number of those who became ill, passed away, and were adversely affected by the Union Carbide explosion will never be known, but the area will never be the same again .[4]

Though it occurred over two decades ago, the people of Bhopal are still waiting for justice. In 1989, Union Carbide paid 470 million USD, which amounted to approximately 783.33 USD per person affected. [In contrast, if the BP fund for the Gulf disaster was allocated equally to all 31 million people living (regardless of whether or not they were personally affected by the spill) in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida would receive around 651.70 USD in compensation.] 783.33 USD was all the money that each victim was given to fight off kidney, liver, skin, and brain disease; for those families that lost males, the main breadwinner was replaced by this paltry sum.[6] The Indian government has been slow in dealing with the victims, and legally, India was unable to force the US into allowing for Bhopal to file charges in American courts.

When BP’s negligence in the US came to light, the latter almost immediately forced the gas giant to make reparations. However, in a case where an American company neglected to ensure the safety of a foreign nation’s citizenry, the United States refused to force just compensation.[1] Union Carbide’s CEO, Warren Anderson, was punished neither by the company nor the US; in fact, Anderson was allowed to retire in 1986. Outstanding warrants intended to bring the CEO in on homicide charges in India have been ignored, as Union Carbide claimed that it does not fall under Indian jurisdiction. The American legal system backed this when, in separate Superior and Supreme Court cases in 2006 and 1993, attempts by Bhopal victims to sue in US courts were dismissed.[3] Thus, the United States government did little to compensate India for the gross negligence of its company’s actions abroad.

The discrepancy and hypocrisy of the United States legal actions towards each incident are glaring. In one situation, a major environmental disaster became a PR nightmare for the offending, non-American company; moreover, as a result billions of USD were issued in compensation. On the other hand, one of the worst industrial disasters in history, which led to the deaths of thousands, was perpetrated by a US subsidiary that was only forced to pay a sum fewer than one thousand dollars per victim. The people of Bhopal were given a cold introduction to the American justice system.








1.”BBC News – ‘Waiting for justice’ 25 years after Bhopal disaster,” BBC News,

correspondent/8386710.stm (accessed September 20, 2010).

2.”BBC News – BP makes $3bn deposit in $20bn relief fund,” BBC – Homepage, (accessed September 18, 2010).

3.”BBC News – Bhopal survivors fight for justice,” BBC News – Home, (accessed September 20, 2010).

4.”BBC News – Bhopal’s economy was stalled by the 1984 gas leak,” BBC News – Home, (accessed September 20, 2010).

5.”BBC News – Bhopal’s health effects probed,” BBC News – Home, (accessed September 20, 2010).

6.”BBC News – Campaigners dismiss Bhopal compensation as insufficient,” BBC – Homepage. (accessed September 19, 2010).

7.”BBC News – Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer ‘faulty’ – Congress,” BBC News – Home. (accessed September 19, 2010).

8.”BBC News – Timeline: BP oil spill.” BBC – Homepage, (accessed September 18, 2010).

9.”Chronology.” Bhopal Information Center, (accessed September 20, 2010).