No mercy call as BP prepares for Deepwater trial

Campaign groups have called for BP to be shown no mercy. Picture: Greg Macvean
Campaign groups have called for BP to be shown no mercy. Picture: Greg Macvean
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CAMPAIGN groups have called for BP to be shown no mercy as prosecutors prepare to put the British oil giant on trial for
causing America’s worst environmental disaster.

The civil case, which opens in federal court in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Monday, could cost BP more than £33 billion in penalties and damages for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe that killed 11 people and unleashed 170 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite having settled criminal claims out of court and paid or committed a total to date of £25bn in settlements and compensation, BP has refused to cede others, scorning prosecutors’ demands as “excessive and not based on reality” and vowing to defend itself against allegations of gross negligence.

However, with the trial expected to last months and BP facing embarrassing evidence, legal commentators believe a deal could yet be in the making.

“This is a game of corporate chicken,” said John Zavitsanos, a Houston, Texas-based civil litigator. “We have tangled with BP often – and they blink.”

In pollution terms, the disaster eclipsed the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, whose effects are still being felt.

Environmentalists maintain that BP’s attempts to sell the Deepwater Horizon incident as an accident that has since been cleaned up are a distortion, citing lessons learned in Alaska, where four years passed after Exxon Valdez before the herring population collapsed. More than two decades later, it has still not recovered.

Scientists believe that the toxic effects of BP’s oil on the Gulf, and the two million gallons of chemicals that were used to disperse it, could have implications for wildlife, coastal wetlands and the health of the ocean for years.

The trial will be conducted in two phases.

The first will determine the degree of negligence shown and apportion blame among the defendants, which also include Transocean, the Deepwater Horizon rig’s owner and operator, and Halliburton, the company whose well-cementing services were later held to be flawed, contributing to the scenario in which a pocket of methane burst from the seabed and erupted in a fireball onto the rig.

The second phase of the trial will set the penalties, according to formulae laid down by environmental legislation including the Clean Water Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
If found guilty of gross negligence, BP could be fined £2,800 per barrel spilled under the Clean Water Act alone – a potential liability of £11.5bn.

In addition, the five Gulf states affected by the spill have filed claims for economic damages of £22bn. A third category of penalties, for damage to natural resources, has yet to be quantified.

Proving gross negligence is seen as a hurdle for the US justice department’s lawyers, but one that they say they are confident of clearing, stating that they have “overwhelming evidence” of the company’s recklessness.

Of particular embarrassment to BP will be e-mails, due to be produced in evidence, that lay bare what government lawyers have termed the company’s “culture of callousness” when it came to rig safety and bitter strife between those involved in drilling, engineering and managing the well 18,300ft below the surface of the sea.