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In a New Orleans court room this week, BP and the federal government are arguing over how much oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 - this is after the Deepwater Horizon explosion - 11 workers were killed and oil flowed from that out-of-control well for almost three months. Exactly how much oil spilled will be key in determining the amount BP has to pay in federal fines and penalties.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Attorneys for the U.S. government and for BP both told a federal judge in opening statements yesterday that they have estimates for how much oil spilled into the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon accident. But their numbers are different. The government says it was about 176 million gallons. BP says it was closer to 103 million.

DOUG MEFFERT: I think the damage is in the billions of dollars and so I think the penalties and reparations should reflect that.

BRADY: Doug Meffert is executive director of Audubon Louisiana. Speaking outside the courthouse, Meffert says he hopes the judge decides the higher government numbers are more accurate.

Meffert says damage from the spill is still occurring. Every time there's a storm, he says, more tar balls show up on beaches. He says it doesn't even have to be a strong storm.

MEFFERT: Tropical Storm Karen completely missed Louisiana - it skirted Grand Isle - and we had tar balls coming up on Grand Isle this weekend as well.

BRADY: A BP spokesman says it'll be a few days before tests show if the tar balls are from its well. In any case, BP says it remains committed to its on-going clean-up work.

Meanwhile in court, Department of Justice attorney Steve O'Rourke said the amount of oil that flowed from BP's well was the equivalent of 16 Exxon Valdez oil spills. He previewed the work government scientists have done to arrive at their estimate. It shows that oil began flowing at one rate and then slowed over time.

But BP lawyer Mike Brock says the oil company's models show the opposite -that the flow started slower and then increased. He said the government reached a spill estimate before all the information was in. The government said BP was cherry-picking data to arrive at a lower number.

Over the next three weeks, Judge Carl Barbier will listen to the evidence in detail. At stake are up to $18 billion in fines and penalties under federal environmental laws.

Ed Sherman is a Tulane Law School professor and he says Judge Barbier has some discretion.

ED SHERMAN: That $18 billion upper limit doesn't mean that he has to award. He can consider the negligence of other parties, the difficulties that they encountered, and so forth.

BRADY: Sherman says this trial is probably one of the most complex in legal history. He says Judge Barbier was smart to divide it into segments. An earlier phase explored the initial explosion and who was at fault.

Even after the weeks and weeks of testimony already heard, the parties could still reach a settlement. Montre Carodine is a professor at the University of Alabama's Law School.

MONTRE CARODINE: You never know what might happen in a case like this. We may get to the very end and there may be a settlement and we may ultimately never hear Judge Barbier's determination.

BRADY: This second phase of the BP/Deepwater Horizon trial is scheduled to continue through October 24th.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

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