CREDIT: AP/Charlie Riedel
BP is going back to court in an attempt to avoid paying billions in additional fines for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The trial, which begins Monday in New Orleans, will center around BP’s efforts to cap its blown-out Macondo well, a struggle that took the company 87 days — or three months — to accomplish. It will also focus on determining exactly how much oil spilled into the Gulf during those three months that the well went uncapped, an amount the federal government estimates at 4.9 million barrels, or 210 million gallons. BP, on the other hand, claims that amount is closer to 2.45 million barrels, a difference that’s important: under the Clean Water Act, polluters can pay maximum fines of $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil — or, if the polluter is found to be grossly negligent, as the plaintiffs argue BP should, $4,300 per barrel. If BP is found to have been grossly negligent, and if the judge rules that about 4.9 million barrels were spilled, the company would be hit with up to $18 billion more in fines.
BP will argue its case against plaintiffs — including the federal government, multiple Gulf states and private claims seekers — who argue that BP “repeatedly lied to key decision makers about the flow rate of the well,” and that “but for BP’s fraud, the well could have been capped weeks earlier.”
BP, on the other hand, insists that it was prepared for the disaster, something the company will have a hard time proving, according to one legal expert.
“I think BP has an uphill battle establishing that their efforts to cap the well were successful because of the sheer length of time involved,” Blaine Lecesne, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, told the Guardian. “We all recall those images of those futile efforts: one device after another everything from injecting debris into the well to the top hat to finally what actually worked which was this custom built device to cap the well.”
Monday’s arguments are part of the second phase of a three-phase trial involving the April 20, 2010 disaster. The first phase, which finished this April, laid out evidence for the cause of the explosion and examined what role BP, Transocean Ltd., and Halliburton Co. had in it. The third phase will look into the attempts to clean up the spill, including efforts to skim and burn the oil and the use of oil dispersants — chemicals which one study found made the spilled oil 52 times more toxic and another found enabled the oil to more deeply penetrate beaches. The second phase of the trial will take 16 days to complete, but final ruling on the trial from U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier isn’t expected until next year.
The trial’s second phase comes as BP is in the midst of another legal battle to limit the number of payouts it gives to Gulf residents and businesses claiming losses from the 2010 disaster. The company has exceeded the $8.2 billion it put aside for the payouts and is now claiming it has had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to businesses that exaggerated or invented losses from the disaster. It also comes just weeks after Anthony Badalamenti, Halliburton’s cementing technology director, was criminally charged with destroying evidence related to the disaster in federal court.
The trial also comes as scientists continue to struggle to quantify the real environmental and economic toll the disaster had in the Gulf region. Just last week, a report from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi found the blowout damaged sea life in an area 57 square miles from the well blow-out site, and that recovery of deep water ecosystems could take a generation or more. And in June, three years after the spill, a 40,000-pound tar mat was dug up off the coast of Louisiana.