Law students advise BP official

Ten GW Law School students aided a top BP official this semester with the allocation the oil-giant’s $20 billion claims fund established after the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last spring.

The memorandums the law students wrote suggested giving the money to a wider group of people than BP may have originally expected.

“We presented thinking more outside the box, especially since due to the ripple effect, a lot more people were affected than those known,” Margaret Pollard, who worked on the claims issues, said. “We used legal support to encourage him to also focus on people that were farther removed from the spill.”

The students sat down with Ken Feinberg, the administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, in mid-November to discuss the ideas they developed over the term. The students prepared for the meeting by gathering research on various aspects of the fund, including the countless loss claims issued, tax problems and environmental offset issues caused by the April 20 explosion.

Despite numerous failed attempts to plug the oil well, oil flowed for 86 days in the Gulf and often showed up on the beaches of border states, massively disrupting ecological and economic conditions of the affected areas. Close to 150,000 people and businesses reportedly requested emergency government repayments after the spill to compensate for the losses caused by the presence of the substance.

During the hour-long meeting with Feinberg, the BP administrator responded to each idea. He asked the students for specific examples and challenged them with situational questions.

“When we started, we talked in general terms,” Michael Onufer said. “He directed us toward more specific situations.”

Professor Alan Morrison, the Lerner Family Associate dean for public interest and public service law, initiated the opportunity. Morrison – who has known Feinberg on a professional level for years – said he had been planning to meet with Feinberg to discuss the fund, and after considering the service-focused efforts of many GW students, he decided to include them in the meeting.

“They came to me wanting to do something about it, and I knew Mr. Feinberg was the special master on this, and he knew I wouldn’t take up his time if I didn’t think the students would produce something useful,” Morrison said.

While one of the 10 students is considering a focus in environmental law, the rest of the students said they joined the team voluntarily, hoping for a chance to work on a project that involved public service.

“They were just interested in helping out people who are in need of help, and if they were nervous, they hid it well,” Morrison said. “All of them were particularly drawn to work on a project of significant practical importance.”

The conversation with Feinberg is expected to continue, as more issues involving the large allocation process come about. Students are currently reviewing a memorandum from the Harvard Law School and presenting feedback to Feinberg.

“We are presented with such an exciting opportunity,” Onufer said. “He will review our feedback by the New Year and take it from there.”

GW has other ties to the BP spill as well. Thad Allen, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard who led the spill cleanup, is a GW alumnus.

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