A Federal District Court judge in New Orleans ruled Thursday that BP was responsible for spilling 3.19 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, about a million barrels less than the U.S. government’s 4.2 million barrel estimate. The ruling decreases BP’s maximum fine from $18 billion — which the company would have been subject to had the judge ruled in favor of the government’s estimate — to $13.7 billion.
In his ruling, District Court Judge Carl Barbier wrote about the challenges of estimating the size of the spill, which occurred after a well failure caused an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 people.
“There is no way to know with precision how much oil discharged into the Gulf of Mexico,” Judge Barbier wrote. “There was no meter counting off each barrel of oil as it exited the well. The experts used a variety of methods to estimate the cumulative discharge. None of these were perfect. Because data from the well is limited, every expert had to make some assumptions while performing his calculations.”
But, the judge wrote, after “weighing all of the evidence and considering all of the arguments,” the Court found that, in total, 4.0 million barrels of oil exited the reservoir, but since 810,000 barrels were captured at the wellhead — a figure both the U.S. and BP agreed on — the total amount spilled amounted to 3.19 million barrels.
Edward F. Sherman, a professor at Tulane University Law School, told the New York Times that, even though Judge Barbier didn’t explain clearly how he came to the 4.0-million-barrel estimate, his choice to take the middle road between the two group’s estimates was smart.
“At times we claim precision,” he said, but “there’s no way to precisely find the numbers, so why not pick a number as he did, reasonably between the two numbers provided by the parties?”
Still, the ruling is good news for BP, as it lowers the amount of fines it faces from $18 billion to $13.7 billion.
“Today’s ruling is a major victory for BP and reduces by billions their potential liability,” David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan, told Bloomberg.
The ruling is the latest in a string of court rulings deciding the blame, extent, and penalties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In September, Judge Barbier found that BP was “reckless” and “grossly negligent” in helping cause the spill, and ruled that BP was responsible for the bulk of the blame for the spill. Judge Barbier’s Thursday ruling comes a week before a trial that will determine the total amount of fines BP is subject to, based on a maximum fine of $4,300 per barrel — an amount that can be lowered based on factors such as whether BP made efforts to minimize the spill’s impact.
Late last year, BP faced controversy when the company’s senior vice president of communications, Geoff Morrell, wrote a piece in Politico titled “No, BP Didn’t Ruin The Gulf,” that, until Politico added a large “opinion” tag, easily mistaken for an article and not an opinion piece.
Scientists still don’t know the extent to which the Deepwater Horizon oil spill damaged the Gulf of Mexico. In July, scientists at Penn State University found that two previously-undiscovered coral reefs near the spill site were much worse off than expected. And in October, scientists discovered a 1,235-square-mile “bathub ring” of oil on the ocean floor near the Macondo well.