NEW ORLEANS (CN) - BP lied about the magnitude of its April 2010 oil spill while using the Gulf of Mexico "as its own private laboratory," lawyers argued as they kicked off the second phase of the damages trial.
The opponents of BP said that the company repeatedly represented that its "best guess" oil flow estimate was 5,000 barrels per day, though BP modeling indicated that figure was the absolute minimum. Meanwhile maximum estimates allegedly soared to as high as 110,000 barrels per day - more than 20 times greater.
Attorneys representing private plaintiffs, the five Gulf States, and BP contractors Halliburton and Transocean have teamed up to argue for BP's sole liability during this, the second of three phases slated to determine oil spill damages.
This phase of the trial is to determine how much oil was spilled and how responsible BP was in its several attempts at capping the broken well.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is presiding over the federal litigation without a jury.
Barbier's courtroom was packed with lawyers, press and members of the public Monday, while tailgaters on the rainy streets surrounding the nearby Superdome donned black and gold clothing in the colors of the New Orleans Saints and reveled under tarp awnings in anticipation of the evening's home football game.
Brian Barr, an attorney for residents and businesses hurt by the spill, said BP failed to prepare for a blowout and compounded the oil spill by intentionally misleading government officials.
BP had a 600-page oil spill response plan that only included one page on "source control," Barr said. And that one-page plan essentially called for an assembly of experts.
"BP's plan was nothing more than a plan to plan," Barr said.
As a result of its failure to plan, BP had no idea how to respond to the catastrophic blowout and wound up using "the Gulf of Mexico as its own private laboratory," Barr said.
Lawyers said BP knew the Top Kill method it attempted to use to close the well in late May 2010 would fail because too much oil was coming out of the well.
Both by BP and government estimates the Top Kill was only a viable option if the flow of oil from the Macondo well was less than 15,000 barrels per day.
Brad Brian, an attorney for rig owner Transocean, told the court that BP got caught in its own lie over the Top Kill and thus "tragically" rejected a well-capping method called BOP-on-BOP that would have capped the well by the beginning of June.
BP blamed the Top Kill failure on the potential the well had ruptured disks, rather than on the allegedly more likely explanation that its well flow exceeded 15,000 barrels per day.
Ruptured disks would have been bad for the BOP-on-BOP, so BP aborted plans for it altogether.
Brian pointed to internal emails between top ranking BP officials that mention flow rate estimates as high as 110,000 barrels per day.
Rather than report that figure to the government officials BP was ostensibly working in conjunction with to cap the well, BP sent them its "best guess" estimate of 5,000 barrels per day, Brian said.
An email sent from BP flow expert Mike Mason to other high ranking officials urged that they "should be very cautious" standing behind a 5,000-barrels-per-day figure "as our modeling shows that this well could be making anything up to 100,000" barrels per day.
Subsequent emails among BP officials caution against sharing flow-rate data.
Lawyers for BP Monday denied that BP had technology sophisticated enough to accurately gage flow rate to the extent they could predict whether or not the Top Kill could be successful, or even whether the flow of oil was 1,000 or 100,000 barrels per day.
Mike Brock, a lawyer for BP, argued that all told, the effort and manpower that went into executing the Top Kill, including ships, piping systems and the hundreds of people required to prepare for it, clashes with the plaintiffs' claims that BP only went through with the unlikely Top Kill to shine the government.
"It makes no sense," Brock told the court in his opening statements. "It defies comprehension that BP would undertake a Top Kill procedure that BP knew would not work."
John Wilson, a hydrology and modeling expert who reviewed BP's emails, reports, memos and depositions testified Monday that BP began conducting research to obtain flow rates almost immediately after the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Wilson said he found evidence of BP tampering with its own projections to obtain data which would reflect its "best guess" estimate of 5,000 barrels of oil per day.
Wilson said 5,000 was the lowest estimate he encountered during his research.
Testimony for the rest of this week will focus on source control. Beginning next week the Department of Justice and BP will each argue their case for how much oil ultimately made its way into the Gulf of Mexico.
Lawyers for BP will attempt to convince the judge that BP for its part was merely "negligent," as opposed to "grossly negligent," to keep down fines under the Clean Water Act.
Such fines are assessed on a per-barrel basis as well as on a valuation of negligence versus gross negligence.
Mere negligence carries a maximum $1,110 fine per barrel of oil spilled, while gross negligence could cost BP as much as $4,300 per barrel.
BP says all told 2.45 million barrels of oil gushed from its broken well. The Department of Justice says the figure is actually 4.1 million barrels. Both figures exclude the nearly 810,000 barrels that were collected during cleanup and which Judge Barbier has agreed not to count.
In all, if Barbier agrees with the Department of Justice's figure for spilled oil, BP could face up to $17.6 billion dollars in fines for the discharge.
This phase of the trial is slated to last 14 days.
Phase I of the trial sought to apportion blame among BP, Transocean and Halliburton for the April 20, 2010, explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana that killed 11 people and set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Sabrina Canfield can be reached at [email protected]