The BP Deepwater Horizon trial has been pottering on in the New Orleans Federal Court since February, and as it enters its second phase today, BP will attempt to argue down government estimates as to how much oil was spilled in the April 2010 disaster that killed 11 people. While the US government claims that the blowout caused 4.2 million barrels of oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico, BP claims the total was up to 40% less. This detail could make a difference of billions of dollars in what is set to be the the largest environmental penalty in U.S. history.

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The fines are to be levied under the Clean Water Act, and there are two distinct variables as to how much BP will ultimately owe. The first variable explores to what extent BP is responsible. If BP is found guilty of negligence in the disaster, they will face penalties of up to $1,100 per barrel; if they are guilty of gross negligence, those fines could leap to $4,300 per barrel. This was argued during the first phase of the trial earlier this year, but Judge Carl J. Barbier has yet to make his ruling.

The second variable looks at how much of the oil was spilled. The minimum fines BP faces under the Clean Water Act, if found guilty of negligence and if the court was to somehow agree with BP’s figures of 2.45 million barrels of oil spilled, would total $2.7 billion. The maximum—for gross negligence and 4.2 million barrels—would stand at over $18 billion.

Ultimately it appears likely that the ruling, and total fines, will sit somewhere between those two figures. But the argument as to how much oil leaked from the Macondo well sends BP and their attorneys back to a long-running argument. In the immediate days following the initial blowout, BP was accused of massively understating the rate of the leak by as much as 60,000 barrels per day. Earlier this year former BP engineer Kurt Mix was found guilty of obstruction of justice for deleting text messages that might have provided a more accurate estimate of the amount of oil spilled.

BP’s Clean Water Act fines will be added to the $4.5 billion it has already agreed to pay, and the $42 billion it has paid in compensation to victims and on clean up operations.

Whether it is ruled that the Deepwater Horizon disaster spewed 2.45 million barrels of 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico (and some estimates put the total above 4.2 million), is unlikely to make significant difference to those working on the Gulf Coast. It is estimated that it will take decades for the Gulf ecosystems to recover from the damage caused by whatever massive amount of oil was leaked, and the questionable dispersant used in attempts to remove it.

Via LA Times