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Gulf oil spill: How much flowed? BP trial judge to decide. (+video)

The second phase of a federal civil trial involving BP began Monday. The company faces Clean Water Act fines ranging anywhere between $2.7 billion to $18 billion for the Gulf oil spill.

By Staff writer / September 30, 2013

PJ Hahn, Coastal Zone Manager for Plaquemines Parish, examines oil along the shoreline of Bay Jimmy, which was heavily impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in Plaquemines Parish, La., Friday, Sept. 27, 2013.

Gerald Herbert/AP


How much oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 rig explosion, at what rate, and why it took nearly three months to stop are key questions in a federal civil trial involving British oil giant BP, whose second phase began Monday in New Orleans.

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The stakes involved are high: BP faces Clean Water Act fines ranging anywhere between $2.7 billion to $18 billion.

Eleven people were killed in April 2010 when an explosion sank the Deepwater Horizon, a rig leased by BP and located 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. The subsequent rush of oil resulted in one of the worst environmental disasters in US history, damaging wildlife and coastal ecosystems and wreaking havoc on local and state economies.

How much oil continues to be in dispute. The US Department of Justice says an estimated 4.2 million barrels, or 176 million gallons, spilled, while BP calculates 2.45 million barrels, or 103 million gallons. The amount of oil spilled will be key in determining the penalty the company faces.

The two-part trial is designed to sort out the complexities involved with the factors leading up to the explosion, as well as with the efforts afterward. For this phase, the defendants are BP and partner Anadarko Petroleum Corp., while the plaintiffs include two BP contractors – vessel operator Transocean and cement supplier Halliburton – and a steering committee made up of attorneys representing local claimants.

The first phase of the trial ended in late April and largely involved the decisions leading up to the blowout. This second phase is expected to last a month and will examine decisions by BP and others in mitigating the oil flow. A decision will be rendered for the entire trial sometime after both phases conclude.

On Monday, plaintiff attorneys said BP misled federal officials in early reports, saying the oil was flowing at a rate much less than the company’s internal estimates. They say that BP initially reported an oil flow of 5,000 barrels of oil per day, but company engineers were estimating more than 100,000 barrels per day. Early attempts to plug the well, including the “top kill” – which involved pumping mud into the blowout preventer – failed because BP insisted on basing the effort on the lower estimates, they said.

“BP pressed ahead and falsely claimed that [top kill] was a slam-dunk. It failed, just as its outside consultants had predicted,” plaintiff attorney Brad Brian said Monday.

In court filings, BP insists that the unprecedented nature of the disaster forced the company to try measures whose outcomes were impossible to predict and involved a high level of risk. They also say that higher estimates used in company modeling efforts were meant to evaluate worst-case scenarios. A “capping stack” – essentially, a device that could be placed atop a counterpart that failed – was not ready for installation before the top kill experiment, they add.


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