NEW ORLEANS – BP bears most of the blame for the disastrous 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico because it cut corners and put profits ahead of safety, a U.S. Justice Department attorney charged Monday at the opening of a high-stakes trial that could result in the oil company and its partners being forced to pay billions more in damages.
The London-based oil giant acknowledged it made “errors in judgment” before the deadly blowout, but it also cast blame on the owner of the drilling rig and the contractor involved in cementing the well. It denied it was grossly negligent, as the government contended.
The civil case went to trial after attempts to reach an 11th-hour settlement failed.
Eleven workers were killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by BP exploded April 20, 2010. An estimated 172 millions of gallons of crude spilled into the Gulf over the three months that followed.
Justice Department attorney Mike Underhill said the catastrophe resulted from BP’s “culture of corporate recklessness.”
“The evidence will show that BP put profits before people, profits before safety and profits before the environment,” Underhill said in opening statements. He added: “Despite BP’s attempts to shift the blame to other parties, by far the primary fault for this disaster belongs to BP.”
BP attorney Mike Brock acknowledged that the oil company made mistakes. But he accused rig owner Transocean Ltd. of failing to properly maintain the rig’s blowout preventer, which had a dead battery, and he claimed cement contractor Halliburton used a “bad slurry” that failed to prevent oil and gas from traveling up the well.
BP has already pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other criminal charges and has racked up more than $24 billion in spill-related expenses, including cleanup costs, compensation for businesses and individuals, and $4 billion in criminal penalties.
But the federal government, Gulf Coast states and individuals and businesses hope to convince a judge that the company and its partners in the ill-fated drilling project are liable for much more in civil damages under the federal Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is hearing the case without a jury and – barring a settlement – will decide months from now how much more money BP and the other companies must pay.
The spill fouled marshes, killed wildlife and closed fishing grounds. Scientists warn that the disaster’s full effect may not be known for years. But they have reported dying coral reefs and fish afflicted with lesions and illnesses that might be oil-related.