The focus of a trial over BP’s massive 2010 oil spill has shifted from the causes of the disaster to the company’s struggle to plug its blown-out well while millions of liters of crude gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months.
The trial’s second phase opened on Monday with claims that BP could have capped the well much sooner had it not ignored decades of warnings about the risks of a deep-water blowout or withheld crucial information about the size of the spill from US federal officials.
BP attorney Mike Brock denied those allegations and said the company’s efforts to stop the flow of oil were guided by an overriding principle: “Don’t make it worse.”
“It was what the government instructed us to do,” Brock told US District Judge Carl Barbier.
The April 20, 2010, blowout triggered an explosion that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and spawned the US’ worst offshore oil spill. BP used a capping stack to seal the well on July 15 after other methods failed.
Brian Barr, an attorney for residents and businesses who claim they were hurt by the spill, said BP treated the Gulf like its own “private laboratory” as its engineers tried in vain to stop the flow of oil.
BP had a 600-page oil spill response plan with only one page on “source control,” which just called for a team of experts to devise a way to stop a blowout, Barr said.
“BP’s plan was nothing more than a plan to plan,” he said.
The trial’s second phase is divided into two segments: The first, centers on BP’s efforts to cap the well. The second is designed to help Barbier determine how much oil spilled into the Gulf.
The US government’s estimate is about 265 million liters, more than what BP says was spilled. Establishing how much oil leaked into the Gulf will help figure out the penalties BP must pay.
Under the US’ Clean Water Act, a polluter can be forced to pay a maximum of either US$1,100 or US$4,300 per barrel of spilled oil. The higher fine applies if the company is found grossly negligent, as Washington argues BP should be.
Using the government’s figures, a maximum penalty if the company is found negligent could total US$18 billion. Using the company’s figures, that maximum penalty would be about US$10.5 billion. BP has already set aside more than US$42 billion for the spill.
In May 2010, BP tried in vain to use the “top kill” method to stop the oil by pumping mud and other material into the blowout preventer. Plaintiffs’ lawyers claim BP knew the strategy was doomed to fail based on higher flow rate estimates that the company did not share with federal officials at the time.
“Nevertheless, BP pressed ahead and falsely claimed that it was a slam dunk,” said Brad Brian, an attorney for rig owner Transocean.
A week after the spill started, high-ranking BP official Doug Suttles told US Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry that the company estimated oil was flowing at a rate of 1,000 barrels to 5,000 barrels per day. Yet its adversaries at the trial say BP’s own internal documents and e-mails show an effort to conceal much higher estimates.
Brian cited an e-mail a BP employee sent to BP Exploration and Production CEO Andy Inglis and his assistant on May 15.
The employee, Mike Mason, warned them that they should be “very cautious” about the lower estimate because his team’s models showed estimates that were up to 20 times higher. Mason said he was called in for a meeting the next day with Inglis’ assistant, who suggested he should not have put his warning in writing.
When Mason asked what the problem was, the assistant replied: “It’s the big number,” Mason said in videotaped testimony.
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