Resumed BP trial hinges on just how bad the spill actually was

BP could be found responsible to the tune of anywhere from $2.7 billion to $18 billion

Topics: Gulf Oil Spill, BP, Clean Water Act, us government, environmentalists, , ,

Over three years after the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 workers and sent oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, BP today enters the second phase of its civil trial.

At issue is just how much oil spilled, and what BP did about it. We know, for example, that the spill was “massive.” But was it 103 million gallons massive, as BP maintains, or more to the tune of 4.2 million barrels — the equivalent of about a quarter of the oil consumed in one day in the U.S. — as the federal government alleges?

And while the government will be arguing that BP ignored decades of warnings about the risk of such an explosion happening, the company’s attorneys wrote that it deserves “recognition, not condemnation” for its response to the explosion.

At stake are the fines imposed by the Clean Water Act, which vary widely depending on whether negligence is determined to have been “simple” or “gross.” According to the New York Times, BP could end up paying just $2.7 billion. But if it’s determined to have spilled both the maximum amount of oil and committed the maximum amount of negligence, the fine could go as high as $18 billion — enough, according to one oil analysis quoted in the Times, to “wipe out all of their cash.”

BP has already admitted negligence in misreading tests leading up to explosion; last year, it pleaded guilty to 14 criminal charges, including manslaughter. So far, it’s paid $4.5 billion in fines and spent $42 billion on cleanup and compensation. While there are no caps on victim compensation fees, the company’s been aggressively trying to get out of paying any more. Environmentalists, according to the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, are hoping the renewed scrutiny brought by this next phase of the trial will make it easier to hold BP accountable for the disaster’s consequences.

The trial, which is being presided over by a federal judge without a jury, is expected to last 16 days.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email

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