Lawyers for British Petroleum (BP) and the US
Justice Department were due to square off Monday, the opening day of
a trial to determine liability in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig
explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Opening statements in the trial before US District Judge Carl Barbier are expected to last hours.
The bill for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and spill already has reached 38 billion dollars, but BP still faces the possibility of more costs associated with the disaster.
BP and thousands of private plaintiffs settled on a compensation package nearly a year ago in New Orleans, but this time BP faces the US government, which is seeking billions of dollars in fines under the Clean Water Act.
Last week BP's lead lawyer, Rupert Bondy, signaled that the company was ready to take the case to court, but reports over the weekend indicated negotiations continued even to Sunday. Reports said US government attorneys offered a 16-billion-dollar deal to settle civil claims.
The disaster killed 11 workers when the oil rig exploded in April 2010 and uncorked a well that leaked hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the gulf over a period of nearly three months - the largest oil spill in US history.
BP management has signaled that it is prepared to pay 5 billion dollars for violating the Clean Water Act, but it has responded bluntly to what it views as "excessive demands" made by the Justice Department and it has vowed to defend itself against the accusation that it acted with "gross negligence."
If it can be determined that BP acted with gross negligence, then it would be required by law to pay up to 4,300 dollars per barrel of crude oil leaked. If gross negligence cannot be proved, the fine would be 1,100 dollars per barrel.
There is also a dispute over the amount of oil that leaked from the well during the 87 days before it was capped.
The government put the amount at about 4.9 million barrels - each barrel holding 159 litres. BP says that amount is exaggerated by at least 20 per cent. Bondy said the amount is no more than 3.1 million barrels.
BP won approval last week for an agreement saying the government will not count 810,000 barrels of oil captured before they became part of spill. That reduced the maximum fine under the Clean Water Act from about 21 billion dollars to about 17.6 billion dollars.
According to BP, it has pledged to pay 38 billion dollars in compensation, with 23 billion dollars already paid out. The criminal liability portion is 4.5 billion dollars after BP pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Private plaintiffs and business people will receive 7.8 billion dollars for losses. The largest portion goes to fisheries.
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