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Alumna helped resolve billions of dollars in civil penalties following BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill

April 19, 2018 | Alumni

By: Madeleine Thomas

Abigail Andre ‘10 was just weeks away from graduating with her JD when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 crew members on board. More than 4 million barrels of oil eventually leaked into the Gulf of Mexico over the next three months before a broken wellhead beneath the rig was finally capped, culminating in the worst offshore oil spill in United States history.

As 24-hour news coverage of the environmental catastrophe aired on TVs throughout Moritz, Andre already knew that she had been accepted into the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division Honors Program, a highly selective, entry-level federal attorney recruitment pipeline. When it came time for her to state her preferences about where she wanted to work, Andre selected the Gulf Coast region. She was in luck.

Andre has been a trial attorney with the division for going on eight years now, five of which she spent working on the BP/Deepwater Horizon case. Her work in complex environmental litigation covers the enforcement of civil and criminal statutes like the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, which manages the cleanup of Superfund hazardous waste sites across the country.

In 2015, Andre and her colleagues successfully resolved civil claims against BP and settled for $6.6 billion in civil penalties, more than $8 billion in natural resources damages, and hundreds of millions of dollars for cleanup and other environmental assessment costs—for a global resolution of civil claims worth more than $20 billion. Even now, the full effect of the oil spill on the economy and delicate coastal ecosystems of the Gulf remains unknown.

A year after the settlement. Andre and her colleagues were honored with a Distinguished Service Award at the 64th Annual Attorney General’s Awards Ceremony for their work on the case. They recovered the largest civil penalty in a Clean Water Act case and the largest settlement with a single entity in DOJ history at the time.

“BP will be paying billions of dollars for years to restore the Gulf,” Andre said. “I’m very proud of that.”

The stress of working on a landmark case as a recent graduate was immense, Andre said, and she used to joke about sitting on phone books in the courtroom to appear more formidable in the eyes of her opposing counsel, who were much older and experienced in the courtroom.

“All of my career firsts happened on the BP oil spill case: my first deposition, my first appearances, first direct and cross examination—and all with TV and news reporters and victims’ family members in the courtroom,” she said. “It was a very intense experience. For that reason, it was also an incredibly rewarding one.”

Andre was an artist by trade, a painter, before switching gears into law. Stints campaigning for NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and an underlying interest in civic service inspired her to change career paths. She still makes and shows her artwork in galleries throughout the Denver area, part of an ongoing attempt to find balance as a lawyer, she jokes.

“I cannot overvalue the importance of coming to law from a diverse background,” she said. “I approach problem solving from a different way. I was out in the world and around different kinds of people for years before settling into law. It provides a unique perspective that I benefit from and that my client agencies benefit from.”

The transition from the art world into the legal sphere was difficult at first, Andre admits, and she faced criticism from the few who doubted that she could fit into the culture of a law firm without having any legal experience, for instance. But those who viewed her unique background as a refreshing change quickly became her biggest advocates.

“Moritz has a diverse enough program that you can really find what works for you and shine,” Andre said. “Yes, it takes finding that thing and digging in, but if you ask and seek out professors that you are inspired by or are interested in, the amount that they will invest in you, I found to be basically limitless.”