Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By Michael Kunzelman
The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — BP lied to the U.S. government and withheld information about the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico after its well blew out in 2010, attorneys told a judge Monday.
In this July 12, 2010, image from a video made available by BP PLC, oil flows out of the top of the transition spool, which was placed into the gushing wellhead and housed the containment cap, at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Associated Press
But lawyers for the London-based oil giant denied those accusations and said there was no way to prepare for such a unique blowout a mile below the sea floor. Second-guessing the company’s efforts to cap the well was “Monday morning quarterbacking at its worst,” BP attorney Mike Brock said during opening statements of the second phase of a trial over the spill.
This part focuses on BP’s response to the disaster and is designed to help U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier determine how much oil spewed into the Gulf.
The government’s estimate is 70 million gallons more than what BP says spilled. Establishing how much oil leaked into the Gulf during BP’s struggle to cap the well will help figure out the penalties the oil company must pay. Billions of dollars are at stake.
The first phase of the trial centered on what caused the blowout.
Brian Barr, an attorney for residents and businesses who claim they were hurt by the spill, said BP failed to prepare for a blowout and compounded the problem by misleading federal officials.
BP had a 600-page oil spill response plan that only included one page on “source control.” It simply called for assembling 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 April 20, 2010, blowout of BP’s Macondo well 50 miles off the Louisiana coast triggered an explosion that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and spawned the nation’s worst offshore oil spill. BP used a capping stack to seal the well on July 15, 2010, after other methods failed.
BP maintains its spill preparations complied with every government requirement and met industry standards. But the blowout presented unforeseen challenges, Brock said.
In May 2010, BP tried in vain to use the “top kill” method to stop the flow of 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 didn’t 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.
Under the Clean Water Act, a polluter can be forced to pay a maximum of either $1,100 or $4,300 per barrel of spilled oil. The higher maximum applies if the company is found grossly negligent, as should be the case for BP, according to the government.
But the penalties can be assessed at amounts lower than those caps. Congress passed a law dictating that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties paid by BP must be divided among the Gulf states.
The Justice Department’s experts estimate 4.2 million barrels, or 176 million gallons, spilled into the Gulf. BP has urged Barbier to use an estimate of 2.45 million barrels, or nearly 103 million gallons, in calculating any Clean Water Act fines.