Phase III, Week 1: Recap of the BP oil spill trial

By Will Lindsey

The first week of phase III of the BP trial ended on Friday, January 23. During this phase, which is expected to last three weeks, Judge Carl Barbier will determine the amount of Clean Water Act civil penalties that BP must pay for the 2010 Gulf oil disaster.

Phase III comes after two previous phases, the first of which determined that BP was 67 percent responsible for the spill, while phase II determined that 3.19 million barrels of oil were discharged into the Gulf after the oil collected was deducted. Given these findings of fact and conclusions of law, Judge Barbier will now determine what BP will pay. In so determining, Judge Barbier will consider 8 factors laid out in the Clean Water Act for assessing civil penalties, including:

1) the seriousness of the violation or violations,

2) the economic benefit to the violator, if any, resulting from the violation,

3) the degree of culpability involved,

4) any other penalty for the same incident,

5) any history of prior violations,

6) the nature, extent, and degree of success of any efforts to the violator to minimize or mitigate the effects of the discharge,

7) the economic impact of the penalty on the violator, and

8) any other matters as justice may require.

Each side will present extensive evidence, primarily in the form of expert testimony, on most of these factors. The United States will not present new evidence on factors that it contends have already been determined, such as the degree of culpability, which was determined in phase II. In addition, the United States will not present new evidence on the economic benefit to BP of the violations, as it contends that phase I dealt with “BP’s cost-cutting decisions.

However, many of these factors will be adamantly disputed and ultimately a “battle of the experts” will ensue at trial. Each side will attempt to discredit the expert witnesses called by the opposing side. Experts will testify on BP’s ability to pay the maximum penalty, BP’s response efforts, the impact that the spill had on the environment and BP’s economic importance to the Gulf Coast, among other issues.

BP indicated in its opening statement that it will highlight the extent of its response efforts to suggest that impacts were successfully mitigated. It will also highlight the expenditures, both as a result of legal proceedings and otherwise, that it has incurred thus far. The United States will in turn emphasize the fact that response effort successes were a result of efforts carried out by numerous parties and not solely attributable to BP, as it indicated in its opening statement. Additionally, the United States will argue that a reduction of the civil penalties in this proceeding based on other penalties, like the criminal penalty, would mean that BP is effectively not paying these penalties.

Ultimately, the expert reports and testimonies of each side will differ. A clear example can be seen in the expert testimony of Captain Mark VanHaverbeke, who testified that approximately five percent of the oil was removed from the Gulf. He indicated that this estimate is lower than the estimate of BP’s expert, Captain Frank Paskewich, because it does not include oil that was dispersed or burned. Captain VanHaverbeke testified that these two methods do not actually remove the oil from the environment. Captain Paskewich’s estimates included oil that was dispersed and burned.

The Gulf Coast is desperately in need of funding for coastal restoration efforts. The billions of dollars at stake in this litigation could mean great things for coastal restoration efforts in the Gulf Coast. The United States will seek an amount close to the maximum penalty of $13.7 billion.