BP Witness Says Company Drilled Well Safely Prior To Spill

In a trial to determine who and what is to blame for the Gulf oil spill of 2010, oil giant BP called its first defense witness on Monday. All Things Considered host Audie Cornish talks with NPR's Jeff Brady, who is watching the trial in New Orleans.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The federal civil trial stemming from the massive 2010 Gulf Oil Spill has entered its seventh week in New Orleans. Plaintiffs - people affected by the spill - have laid out their case, arguing that oil giant BP was grossly negligent in its operation of the deep offshore well, and that led to the accident that killed 11 people and launched the four million-barrel spill. This morning, BP began presenting the company's defense against those claims.

NPR's Jeff Brady joins us from New Orleans, where he was in the courtroom today. And, Jeff, this is a big, complicated case. So bring us up to speed on the trial.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Right, BP already has pleaded guilty to criminal charges, including manslaughter, and settled with a large group of plaintiffs, mostly individuals and businesses hurt by the disaster. That settlement was estimated at almost $8 billion at the time.

But that still leaves the federal government and five Gulf Coast States. The claims from those governments are a big part of what this trial is about now. The goal here is to determine what caused the well blowout and oil spill and who is to blame. Judge Carl Barbier is overseeing the case and he'll decide it himself. There's no jury in this civil trial. His decision could determine how many billions of dollars BP will have to pay in federal fines, especially those under the Clean Water Act.

The plaintiffs have argued that BP was grossly negligent and the judge has heard weeks of testimony on that now, about how decisions were made and who was responsible for them.

CORNISH: And BP is presenting its defense now. What did the company argue in court today?

BRADY: So, BP began with a few technical witnesses. Dr. Ted Bourgoyne is a petroleum engineer with Louisiana State University. He countered accusations from a geophysicist who testified earlier for the plaintiffs. And that geophysicist called BP's behavior in drilling this well unsafe and dangerous. But Bourgoyne says he reviewed how BP drilled the well and concluded the company did it safely, and with industry guidelines.

But, you know, I think the best way to understand what's going on here is to look back to BP's opening statements in February. What the company said then is pretty much what BP executives have argued all along and what the company is arguing here - that it was not grossly negligent; that this was an accident with many causes and a variety of companies involved.

Those other companies, they actually argued that BP was the operator of the well and had final say in everything. So this just isn't a simple plaintiffs-versus-defendants case. You actually have defendants arguing against each other.

CORNISH: Now, BP already has paid out billions related to this spill. So tell us more what's at stake.

BRADY: BP set aside $42 billion to pay for costs associated with this disaster. That's a lot of money, even for a company as big as BP. It's been selling off assets to help pay those costs. At one point, there was even a question of whether BP would be able to survive this, but that's not a question now.

Still, in this trial, billions of dollars are at stake. Under the Clean Water Act, there's up to seventeen and a half billion dollars in fines that BP could be subject to. It could turn out to be much less than that if the company convinces this judge that the blame should be spread across all those companies involved.

CORNISH: And do you know how long BP will take to present its defense and when this trial will wrap up?

BRADY: BP's lawyers expect to take about two weeks. So they'll probably wrap up around the 23rd of April. Then the plaintiffs will have a chance to present a rebuttal. The first phase of this overall big trial could be over by the end of the month. And then we'll get a decision from the judge after that.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jeff Brady, joining us from New Orleans. Jeff, thank you.

BRADY: Thank you, Audie.

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