"This is ultimately a story about corporate reputation and corporate liability," says James O'Rourke, a management professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "Clearly, the litigators want everybody to shut up and say nothing and then fight the battle in court. But ultimately the court of public opinion may determine more of the company's forward success than a court of law."
BP has paid out $9.5 billion to combat the spill, kill the well, and remunerate victims – a figure that BP says could ultimately climb to $32 billion. Though that's not likely to doom a company with an average annual revenue stream of nearly $250 billion, uncertain liabilities could increase the impact on BP's bottom line beyond that figure. Unresolved issues include restrictions on BP's ability to drill and the settlement of thousands of civil lawsuits piling up in courthouses along the Gulf Coast.
More broadly, the accident is likely to alter how business gets done in the Gulf, and not just for BP. The result may be that drilling will be safer, but it will also be more expensive, which could shake out some industry players and affect everything from gasoline prices to US energy independence. Four major drilling rigs, including the Deepwater Ocean Confidence, have left or are leaving the Gulf due to the drilling moratorium.