Back in 2010, British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and spilled millions of barrels of oil off the Louisiana coast. Countless small business owners, including fishermen, hotel operators, restaurants, rental companies, and seafood processors, suffered and went bankrupt. State and local governments lost billions more in tax revenue. Lawyers, who may be some of the few people to actually profit from the disaster, are still fighting over compensation and claims, and will probably still be fighting until long after anyone reading these words is still alive.
BP has been gushing cash ever since the spill to clean up its mess and restore its reputation the damaged environment. The total includes $20 billion for a trust fund to settle financial claims, $4.5 billion in criminal fines and other penalties, and $18.7 billion to settle federal and state claims. But there’s good news for the company, too — they’ll be getting billions in help from their friends at the IRS!
Here’s how that little plot twist works. Section 162(f) of the Internal Revenue Code states that “no deduction shall be allowed . . . for any fine or similar penalty paid to a government for the violation of any law.” But defining exactly what makes up a “fine or penalty” isn’t as obvious as you might think (and it gives those lawyers we just talked about the opportunity to bill a lot of hours arguing about it). Payments that aren’t considered fines or penalties are deductible just like any other business expense. So let’s take a look at exactly how BP will be structuring this final settlement:
• $5.5 billion goes towards a Clean Water Act penalty. This amount should be nondeductible. However, the press release announcing the settlement states that 80% of the penalty “will go to restoration efforts in the affected states pursuant to a Deepwater-specific statute, the RESTORE Act.” That should give a clever lawyer more than enough rope to argue for deductibility!
• $8.8 billion goes towards natural resource damage and funding Gulf restoration projects. Since it’s not explicitly designated a “fine” or “penalty,” BP will probably deduct it.
• $5.9 billion goes towards state and local governments to settle their claims. Again, since it’s being paid to “settle” claims, BP will likely deduct it.
• $600 million goes towards “other claims,” including “unreimbursed federal expenses due to this incident.” (Sounds like the sort of “slush fund” favored by Louisiana politicians of yore, doesn’t it?) And really, how much fun is a slush fund if you have to pay tax on it?
We may never know exactly how much BP writes off because deductions on settlements are confidential business information. But we know the company’s federal tax rate is 35%. So that means, if BP writes off, say, $20 billion of the payments, they’ll save $7 billion in taxes. That money, of course, comes out of all of our pockets. So pat yourself on the back for playing your part in cleaning up the Gulf.
Nobody ever plans to suffer through a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon spill. But it’s worth remembering that how you clean up your mistakes can make a real difference. So think of us as your financial “911,” and don’t hesitate to call if trouble strikes!