If BP is not found to have acted with negligence, the penalty would be $1,100 per barrel. About 4.1 million barrels escaped into the gulf, according to the new estimate, so that fine would come to $4.5 billion. If BP is found to have acted with "gross negligence" in the lead-up to the spill, the maximum penalty would be $4,300 a barrel, which would work out to $17.6 billion.
For comparison's sake, Los Angeles County MTA spends 1.8 billion a year on transit operations. (Page 23 of the 2009 Annual Report, massive PDF warning.) The lower estimate of BP's fine could fund Southern California's largest transit operator for two and a half years, the higher one for nearly a decade. These are not small numbers. Money like this could make a serious dent in funding for all sorts of government programs.
I'm unaware if there is a statutory requirement that these fines go toward certain programs, but if there is, Congress should be encouraged to change it. Since this crisis was caused by our inordinate hunger for oil, the money our government takes in from BP should be used to get our nation off of oil. We should take that $17.6bn and create a grant program for maintaining and expanding transit service and building infrastructure for cycling and walking across this country. For that kind of money, we could build nearly 680 miles of light rail. (Only 302 miles of light rail currently exist in the entire state of California, between the San Diego Trolley, the SPRINTER, Metro Rail, Muni Metro, VTA light rail and Sacramento RT.) We could stripe thousands of miles of bike lanes or build thousands of miles of multi-use path. This money represents an opportunity to make substantial improvements to our transportation infrastructure, lessening the likelihood that a disaster of this sort would happen again.
(Of course, since the Senate Republicans are still ardently practising the Tarantino, this has no chance of passing. They'll probably give the money back to BP in a tax cut.)