Almost three years ago BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill occurred. Eleven people died. The explosion led to what became the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The civil trial began yesterday in New Orleans, with eleven teams of lawyers participating. They day before, reports say, the U.S. Justice Department and BP were still trying to find a way to avoid what some say could be a year-long trial. There is speculation that an out-of-court agreement could yet be reached, and the trial ended. But for now, it proceeds toward determining responsibility in what the attorney representing the Dept. of Justice, Michael Underhill, called the “well from hell.”

From The Guardian:

The man in charge of BP’s ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig warned his boss that staff were operating in “˜chaos, paranoia and insanity’ just days before a fatal blowout killed 11 men and caused the worst oil spill in US history, a New Orleans court heard on Monday.

In opening arguments … Underhill … said BP knew it was drilling a “˜well from hell’ but that its managers refused to deviate from a “˜course of corporate recklessness’ that ultimately led to the fatal blowout at the Gulf of Mexico well.

In a difficult day for BP, Underhill was followed by statements from BP’s partners in the fatal rig, Transocean and Halliburton, who also slammed BP.

Outside the court, people gathered, holding signs such as “Make BP Pay!” At Common Dreams:

“˜This is not just about something that’s going to take decades to clean up,’ said Chris Canfield, vice president of Gulf of Mexico conservation and restoration for the National Audubon Society. “˜This is about making sure that bad actors are punished for a series of decisions that put profits ahead of people and the environment.’

The Common Dreams piece notes that “BP has previously settled thousands of lawsuits linked to the disaster,” which includes a “$4.5 billion plea deal with the US government,” with BP pleading guilty to criminal charges,” and “$7.8 billion settlement with people and businesses affected by the spill.”

The question of appropriate settlement is complicated by the fact that BP, Halliburton, and Transocean are busy pointing fingers at one another. Probably it’s more accurate to say that it’s BP on one side of the finger-pointing, with Halliburton and Transocean pointing back.

Another complication is because five Gulf states were affected by the spill.

EcoWatch provides this summary:

If BP is found to just be “˜negligent,’ under the Clean Water Act, the penalties are $1,100 per barrel, however if “˜gross negligence’ is proven then it is $4,300 per barrel. If found guilty of gross negligence, BP would be liable for as much as $17.6 billion in Clean Water Act fines.

However, in addition, the Gulf states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida are demanding an additional $34 billion in damages under the Oil Pollution Act.

The first phase of the trial is to apportion blame for the disaster and could take three months just to determine the ‘gross negligent’ part of the legal action. The second phase of the trial will determine exactly how much oil was spilled in order to calculate environmental fines. The third phase will deal with environmental and economic damages.

As I said, it’s complicated.

According to EcoWatch, plaintiffs argue that

… BP was over-budget and behind schedule for its Macondo well, so the oil giant cut corners and ignored tests showing unsafe pressure levels as it tried to complete the project.

BP was not alone in being at fault. Halliburton’s cement job was woefully defective Transocean didn’t behave any better by disabling safety systems and failing to maintain the rig adequately.

You can follow a live blog of the trial here)

(BP Oil Spill Bird Logo via EcoWatch)