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U.S. District Judge To Calculate BP's Fine For Gulf Oil Spill


Now let's hear about a European company that is back in U.S. court this week. The oil giant BP will find out how many billions of dollars it must pay for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A federal judge in New Orleans has already found that BP's gross negligence led to the disaster. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It's been nearly five years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. Eleven workers were killed, and oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for three months, fouling beaches, wetlands and wildlife from Texas to Florida. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier has ruled that BP's profit-driven decisions and willful misconduct are to blame for the disaster. Now he's set to calculate what BP should pay in civil fines for polluting the Gulf, a figure that will be unprecedented, says University of Michigan law professor David Uhlmann, a former chief of the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section.

DAVID UHLMANN: BP faces the largest civil penalty ever imposed under the Clean Water Act.

ELLIOTT: With the gross negligence finding, the Clean Water Act allows for fines up to $4,300 per barrel of oil discharged. Judge Barbier last week set that figure at 3.19 million barrels. So if you do the math, that means it's within the judge's discretion to fine BP as much as $13.7 billion. The federal government argues if ever there was a case that merits the maximum fine, this is it. University of Alabama law professor Montre Carodine has been following the case.

MONTRE CARODINE: When he's thinking about how much money ultimately to impose, he's going to be thinking about that testimony that led him to believe that BP acted with gross negligence.

ELLIOTT: Barbier will hear testimony on a number of factors, including the seriousness of the violation, BP's degree of culpability, the company's history of prior violations and what efforts it made to mitigate the spill. In a statement, attorney J. Andrew Langan says BP will show the judge why it should get a lower fine. Ed Sherman, a professor at Tulane Law School, expects BP to focus on what it has already spent - some $42 billion.

ED SHERMAN: BP argues, well, we've already been punished enough.

ELLIOTT: For instance, BP paid $4 billion to settle federal criminal charges. It also cut a deal with private oil spill victims. That's exceeding its initial cost estimate of about $9 billion. Then, there's the $14 billion the company spent on response and cleanup.

SHERMAN: BP is arguing in their briefs that they expended extraordinary effort for the cleanup. In fact, they say that BP mounted the largest and most effective response in history, sparing no expense.

ELLIOTT: On the Gulf Coast where the effects of the spill linger, officials want to see the maximum fine against BP. State and local governments stand to receive 80 percent of the penalty under a special federal law. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange.

LUTHER STRANGE: This was the most catastrophic environmental disaster the United States has suffered. And so what's at stake is money that will go towards restoring and preserving the damaged Gulf Coastline for this generation and for future generations.

ELLIOTT: Environmental groups are also calling for a high penalty. Cynthia Sarthou with the Gulf Restoration Network says the BP fine should be a message for the oil and gas industry.

CYNTHIA SARTHOU: They're moving into deeper waters faster and faster with more and more uncertainty. And I think that what we need is sort of a speed bump that says to them, maybe you need to be a little more cautious because you could really, really be financially hurt if you are negligent or grossly negligent in what you're doing.

ELLIOTT: The penalty phase of the trial starts Tuesday in New Orleans federal court. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.