Billions at stake as BP oil spill trial opens

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iol scitech feb 25 BP oil spill AP File photo: Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon.

New Orleans - Billions of dollars will be at stake on Monday at the opening of a complex trial to determine how much BP should pay for the devastating 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The British energy giant has already resolved thousands of lawsuits linked to the deadly disaster out of court, including a record $4.5 billion plea deal with the US government in which BP pleaded guilty to criminal charges and a $7.8 billion settlement with people and businesses affected by the spill.

US prosecutors are determined to prove that gross negligence caused the April 20, 2010 blast that killed 11 workers and sank the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig, sending millions of barrels of oil gushing into the sea.

BP is equally determined to avoid a finding of gross negligence, which would drastically increase its environmental fines to as much as $17 billion.

“Gross negligence is a very high bar that BP believes cannot be met in this case,” BP group general counsel Rupert Bondy said.

“This was a tragic accident, resulting from multiple causes and involving multiple parties.”

BP is also hoping to shift much of the blame - and cost - to rig operator Transocean and subcontractor Halliburton, which was responsible for a faulty cement job on board the offshore drilling platform.

It took 87 days to cap BP's runaway well, which blackened beaches in five states and crippled the region's tourism and fishing industries in a tragedy that rivetted the nation.

BP spent more than $14 billion on the response and cleanup and paid another $10 billion to businesses, individuals and local governments that did not join the class action lawsuit.

It remains on the hook for billions in additional damages, including the cost of environmental rehabilitation.

The first phase of the civil trial at the federal courthouse in New Orleans will determine the cause and apportion fault for the disaster.

The second phase, not expected to start for several months, will determine exactly how much oil was spilled in order to calculate environmental fines.

The US government on Tuesday agreed not to count the 810,000 barrels of oil BP siphoned out of the runaway well before it could spill into the sea.

But a complicated battle looms over the rest, as BP insists the government overestimated how much oil gushed out of the well by “at least 20 percent.”

The third phase will deal with environmental and economic damages.

“It's a very complex piece of litigation,” said Ed Sherman, a Tulane Law professor who has closely monitored the case.

While the $7.8 billion settlement reached last year resolved most of the economic and medical claims, scores more remain from insurers, racetracks, casinos, financial institutions and state and local governments.

Despite BP's avowal to “vigorously” defend itself against the gross negligence charge, many experts believe it could still reach an out-of-court settlement with the US government over environmental fines.

“BP cannot let this case proceed to judgment because the liability exposure is too great and the facts are squarely against them,” Loyola University Law School professor Blaine LeCesne told AFP.

“Even if settlement isn't reached before trial it can still happen once the trial is under way.”

Environmentalists and those affected by the spill hope that Judge Carl Barbier will assess the maximum penalties possible under the law.

“We would all like to avoid trial and get the money flowing to Gulf states, and we understand that a reduction of liability is necessary to reach a settlement,” said Brian Moore, legislative director for the National Audubon Society.

“But the Gulf Coast is still reeling, and people are still waiting for BP to be held accountable for the largest environmental disaster in our nation's history. The people of the Gulf Coast don't feel justice has been served. There is much work to be done.” - Sapa-AFP

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