BP told "outright lies" as it tried to hide the amount of oil that was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, a court heard on Monday, in a new phase of the trial that will ultimately determine how much the company will pay in fines.
In opening statements of the latest phase of the trial over the fatal 2010 disaster, plaintiffs' attorney Brian Barr said BP failed to prepare for a blowout and compounded the problem by lying about how much oil was flowing from the well. He said BP was woefully unprepared for the disaster. "BP's plan was nothing more than a plan to plan," said Barr.
BP attorney Mike Brock said second-guessing the company's efforts to cap the well is "Monday morning quarterbacking at its worst." He said that BP's spill response was "extraordinary" and that the company "did not misrepresent flow rate in a way that caused a delay in the shut-in of the well."
US district judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans, who is presiding over the trial, is already weighing whether BP's actions ahead of the disaster and during the subsequent spill reached the level of "gross negligence". The second phase of the trial, expected to last 14 days, will cover the size of the spill and BP's efforts to contain it.
The Department of Justice says the claims 4.2m barrels poured from Deepwater Horizon after the fatal fire and explosion that claimed 11 lives. BP estimates the figure was closer to 2.4m barrels. The figures will determine the ultimate size of BP's fine, which could be as high as $18bn. In court filings BP has argued the US is using "unproven methods that require significant assumptions and extrapolations" and intends to challenge those figures in court.
The company and its partners face fines of as much as $1,100 for each barrel of oil released into the Gulf if they are found negligent in their actions while drilling the well and in limiting the effects of the accident. Under the Clean Water Act, those fines could rise to $4,300 per barrel if the responsible parties are found to have acted with gross negligence or "willful misconduct."
The trial has set BP against former partners including oil services companies Transocean and Halliburton. The contractors are trying to ensure that BP gets a larger share of the blame for the disaster.
Transocean and Halliburton have argued that BP could have sealed the well on 15 May 2010, two months earlier than it was actually capped, and that their liabilities should therefore be reduced to account only for oil spilled before that date.
On Monday lawyers for Transocean told the court that the well was "allowed to flow for weeks and weeks and weeks that were unnecessary" because BP had "skewed" its analysis.
Environmental groups protested outside the New Orleans courthouse ahead of the trial. Bethany Kraft, director of Ocean Conservancy's Gulf restoration programme, said: "Despite BP's best efforts to deflect attention from their role in the worst environmental disaster in US history, I'm confident that every phase of the trial will show that this ongoing tragedy happened because of their careless actions and those of other responsible parties. It's time to dispense with the grandstanding and dig into the work of restoring the Gulf and the livelihoods of the people who depend on it."
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: BP may face $18bn in fines for gross negligence as federal trial resumes
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