Testimony ends for 1st phase of BP oil spill trial

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Associated Press

Posted on April 18, 2013 at 1:01 AM

Updated Thursday, Apr 18 at 1:01 AM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Testimony concluded Wednesday for the first phase of a high-stakes trial over the deadly 2010 rig explosion that led to the nation's worst offshore oil spill, but the presiding judge didn't immediately rule in the case.

After BP PLC wrapped up its defense on the trial's 29th day, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier announced he would give the parties more than two months to submit written briefs outlining their conclusions about the case.

"There's a huge amount of evidence for the court and parties to consider," Barbier said.

The trial began Feb. 25 and included testimony by witnesses for the federal government, a team of private plaintiffs' attorneys, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and cement contractor Halliburton.

The first phase of trial was intended to identify the causes of the blowout of BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico and assign fault to the companies. The trial's second phase, scheduled to start in September, is designed to determine how much crude spilled into the Gulf and would explore BP's efforts to stop the flow of oil.

Barbier heard eight weeks of testimony without a jury. Barring a settlement, he could decide how much more money BP and its contractors owe for the disaster.

The blowout triggered a blast that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf, polluting beaches and marshes, killing wildlife and closing fishing grounds.

BP has already pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other criminal charges and agreed to pay $4 billion in criminal penalties. The company says it has racked up a total of more than $24 billion in spill-related expenses, including cleanup costs and compensation for businesses and individuals.

But the company still faces billions more in civil claims by the federal government and Gulf Coast states under the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations.

The price tag for BP would soar if Barbier agrees with claims by the Justice Department and private plaintiffs' attorneys that BP acted with gross negligence before the blowout.

Under the Clean Water Act, a polluter can be forced to pay a minimum of $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil. The fines nearly quadruple to about $4,300 a barrel for companies found grossly negligent, meaning BP could be on the hook for nearly $18 billion.

Plaintiffs' attorneys claim BP sacrificed safety and cut corners in a rush to complete a drilling project that was behind schedule and millions of dollar over budget.

BP acknowledges it made mistakes that led to the blowout, but the company denies it was grossly negligent and argues Transocean and Halliburton also must shoulder blame for the catastrophe.

Patrick O'Bryan, who was BP's vice president of drilling and completions in the Gulf at the time of the disaster, testified Wednesday. He said he never heard any concerns that the rig crew felt pressure to cut corners to finish a project that was behind schedule and over budget.

"They took pride in what they did. They wanted to deliver a good well, but they wanted to deliver a safe well," O'Bryan said.

Robert Bea, an expert witness for plaintiffs' attorneys, testified earlier in the trial that the drilling team was under enormous financial pressure to finish the project. O'Bryan acknowledged it was "costing more than we thought" to complete the well, but said he never heard any concerns that safety was sacrificed to speed up the process.

"It's not uncommon to have cost overruns," said O'Bryan, who left BP in 2011 to take a job at a smaller company.

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