Environmental Trial of the Century Begins in New Orleans: Will BP Pay the Ultimate Price?

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By Glynn Wilson

The historic trial of BP for the horrific Gulf Oil Spill of 2010 began in New Orleans on Monday, and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, liaison counsel for the Gulf States, made the case clear in his opening statement to the court about the economic and environmental devastation caused by the disaster.

The question is, will there be a settlement in the case between BP and the Obama administration on the amount of oil lost and the price tag in the case? Or will BP, Transocean and Halliburton go through an entire public trial and pay the ultimate price? A guilty verdict for “gross negligence” and a maximum fine of $21 billion, $4,300 a barrel for the 4.9 billion spilled?

BP lawyers will try to argue that the company recaptured 810,000 barrels out of the water with container vessels, and the amount should be reduced by between $900 million and $3.5 billion.

Gulf Coast Organizations Protest Obama Administration’s Settlement with BP

In this phase one of the case, Strange said, the one issue at stake is: Who was at fault for the explosion and spill “that caused such unprecedented and catastrophic damages to the Gulf Coast?”

He said the evidence will show what we have all known for years now since several reports have shown what happened to cause the disaster. The “spill” was both “predictable and preventable,” Strange said, and BP’s “culture of corporate callousness towards the Gulf caused the spill.”

The evidence will show, he said, that BP knew that the risk of a deepwater blowout in the Gulf was great, nine times greater than in the North Sea.

“BP also knew … before the blow-out that the centralizers would not centralize, the cement would not cement, the controllers would not control, and the blowout-preventer would not prevent. We will show that BP knew all of this. But BP was blinded by their bottom line … the spill was tragically inevitable due to BP’s corporate culture.”

The evidence will show that, at BP, money mattered most, he said. Money mattered more than the environment, more than the thousands of jobs and businesses destroyed along the Gulf Coast.

“Money even mattered more than the lives of the 11 workers who died on the Horizon rig,” he said. “Money mattered more to BP than the Gulf. A lot more. Your honor, the evidence will be clear and unmistakable: Greed devastated the Gulf.”

He said the evidence will prove that BP acted with “gross negligence and willful misconduct,” as did Transocean and Halliburton.

BP lawyer Mike Brock sought to defend the British oil company against charges that it was “grossly negligent” in causing the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, arguing that the incident was the result of a series of mistakes by the entire team of companies on the rig.

“There were multiple reasons and multiple parties responsible” for the April 20, 2010, explosion, Brock said during his opening statement.

Brock defended BP’s safety record prior to the blowout, and said its workers on the rig had no incentive to take excessive risks.

“There was a robust safety system in place on Deepwater,” he said.

Brock conceded that BP made mistakes that contributed to the disaster. But he said the company’s actions did not rise to the legal standard of “gross negligence” – the most severe form of misconduct.

Halliburton lawyer Don Godwin hammered BP for a series of missteps that he said caused the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Godwin said that, in the weeks leading up to the blowout, BP “repeatedly rejected” Halliburton’s warnings about the stability of cement it installed to seal the well. Godwin said BP ignored Halliburton’s recommendations to delay drilling until additional tests could be conducted.

He also displayed emails from BP commending Halliburton for “a great job” installing the cement, which was supposed to keep oil and gas from pushing back up the well, causing a blowout.

“That was then. This is now. Now they want to pass the buck,” he said. “This trial is about BP’s misguided attempt to blame Halliburton and others for its misconduct.”

Transocean lawyer Brad Brian painted BP as the responsible party for the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, saying the British oil company “has tried to shift blame and distort the facts” of the case.

“None of this had to happen,” Brian said. “It happened because BP was behind schedule and was rushing to get this well done.”

Brian staunchly defended the Transocean employees on the rig, saying they did their jobs and performed “heroically” during the crisis.

“The Transocean crew did their duty. They died doing their duty,” he said. “They died, not because they weren’t trained properly, but because critical information was withheld from them by BP.”

Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said BP should be hit with the highest possible fines – and a ruling of “gross negligence” – for its failure to prevent the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

“Evidence will show willful and wanton misconduct” on the part of BP, Caldwell said in his opening statement to the court. “Punitive damages should be the highest allowed by law.”

Caldwell said Louisiana is continuing to suffer damages as a result of the spill.

“This is a continuing tragedy to this very day,” he said, noting that more than 1 million barrels of oil still remain unaccounted for in the Gulf.

Caldwell said there were no surprises in the trial’s opening statements.

“I was interested to hear their position, in light of the evidence they intend to put on,” Caldwell said shortly after Judge Carl Barbier adjourned court for the day.

Caldwell said it was important for the plaintiffs to emphasize that the oil spill is an ongoing event for the Gulf Coast.

“I know people want to put it in the past tense, but the fact is it’s continuing to have an impact – a huge impact – on the Louisiana coast,” he said.

Jim Roy, representing Plaintiffs Steering Committee, opens trial comments with twin attacks on Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and well owner BP. Roy, a veteran Louisiana trial lawyer, cites cites testimony that catastrophe was entirely preventable, and says evidence will show BP guilty of gross negligence.

BP “had a we-can-get-away-with-this attitude,” Roy said. “They put profits over safety, again and again.”

A number of national environmental groups, in New Orleans to protest during the trial, issued statements on the case.

“The Gulf of Mexico is more than just a place where oil companies make enormous profits — it’s a public jewel where our children swim, where wildlife live and where we get the food we eat,” said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “A potential settlement as low as the reported $16 billion would not be much of a deterrent for an oil giant like BP- — and it is unlikely to be enough to fully restore the Gulf of Mexico as the law requires. The Obama Administration can and must do more to hold BP accountable.”

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the American people deserve to see BP held fully accountable for its recklessness.

“The Gulf of Mexico is an ecological treasure that sustains a large part of the national economy,” Krupp said. “With everything we know about the corners BP cut and the risks the company took, this ought to be a clear-cut case of ‘gross negligence.’ The outcome of this case needs to send a clear message to all companies who drill in our nation’s waters: risky behavior is bad for business.”

Chris Canfield, vice president of the Gulf Coast for the National Audubon Society, said It will be years, even decades, before we understand the true impacts of the spill.

“The law requires BP to compensate the American people for all the damage that was done- — for every smothered blade of marsh grass and for every oiled pelican — as well as for any long-term effects we may have not yet seen,” Canfield said. “It was years after the Exxon Valdez disaster that the herring population crashed due to that spill, and it still has not recovered. The outcome of this case must ensure that BP will be held fully accountable not only for the damages we see today, but also for any damages we will discover years from now.”

Jacqueline Savitz, Deputy Vice President for U.S. Campaigns at Oceana, said nothing can undo the Deepwater Horizon Disaster.

“By cutting corners and putting profit over safety, BP caused the worst offshore oil spill in world history. By exposing the misdeeds of BP, finding its gross negligence, and ordering full payment of the fines, this trial can help prevent future oil disasters,” Savitz said. “The fines must reflect the full scale of its unprecedented and far-reaching impact.”

BP still owes Americans tens of billions of dollars, possibly as much as $47.5 billion according to Oceana’s, and others’ analyses, Savitz said. This includes as much as $17.5 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act, an estimated $30 billion for natural resources damages and additional compensation for economic damages to the fishing and tourism industries.

Some estimates suggest the figure could be twice as large.

“It has become disturbingly clear since the 2010 BP spill that we cannot rely on the government to stop the dangerous process of offshore drilling. This administration is leasing more of the Gulf to BP and other companies, and planning devastating seismic exploration in the Atlantic, in spite of the lack of sufficient spill prevention and response capacity,” Savitz said. “America must put a stop to this oil and gas industry culture of drilling in deeper and more dangerous places without having the capacity to effectively respond to a spill. We hope the courts will give Americans their due, charge BP the fines required by law, and in doing so, send a deterrent message to the oil and gas industry.”

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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