HOUSTON — Unless the Justice Department and BP reach a last-minute settlement, the British oil company will return to court on Monday to face tens of billions of dollars in civil claims from the 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico that could cripple the company for years to come.
For the last three years, BP's efforts to explore and produce oil across the globe have been overshadowed by the accident that left 11 workers dead and soiled hundreds of miles of Gulf Coast beaches. The company has been forced to plead guilty to several felony charges, pay large fines and shake up its management team. Compelled to sell off oil assets to meet its expanding liabilities from the blowout and spill, BP has shrunk considerably in size, and the trial promises to extend the company's distress.
The Federal District Court trial in New Orleans will bundle suits brought by the Justice Department, state governments, private business and individual claimants against BP and several of its contractors. Decisions on culpability and damages could be a year or more away, but they are likely to have profound impacts on environmental law and determine the viability of BP as a major oil company with global ambitions.
"BP and the government are taking a high-stakes gamble by going to trial," said David Uhlmann, a University of Michigan law professor and a former chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section, who expressed surprise that talks appear to have broken down. "The fate of Gulf Coast recovery efforts and billions of dollars in Clean Water Act penalties hang in the balance. Unless cooler heads prevail, and a settlement is reached, it now may be years before there is any certainty for BP and communities along the gulf."
Given the pretrial disputes between BP officials and federal prosecutors over the extent of the company's wrongdoing and the potential for billions of dollars in damages and mounting legal fees, it remains unclear whether any possibility for a settlement still exists on the eve of trial.
If the trial opens next week, the first of two trial phases is expected to center on whether BP and its contractors were guilty of gross negligence — tantamount to wanton and reckless behavior, or conscious disregard for reasonable care that is likely to cause harm or injury — in causing the Macondo well blowout.
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