The trial that will decide BP’s culpability in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was set to begin in the US District Court in New Orleans today, but has been postponed to allow the oil company to continue to discuss settlements with plaintiffs in the case. Experts say the oil company faces up to $52 billion in fines and liabilities, making this case the largest corporate offense in history that requires a fine paid to the U.S. government. The disaster is sure to become one of the most expensive environmental disasters in history and the postponed trial is set to decide exactly how expensive it will be. The new start date is set for March 5th and the trial is expected to last at least two years.

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The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico on April 11th 2010 caused the largest oil spill in United States history and billions in resulting damage to the Gulf’s ecosystems and the livelihoods of thousands of Americans who depend on its clear blue waters to make a living. BP’s lawyers and the lawyers representing plaintiffs in the case said that the postponement will help the two sides attempt to, “fairly compensate people and businesses,” through a settlement. “There can be no assurance that these discussions will lead to a settlement agreement,” the statement warned. “A further announcement will be made as appropriate.” BP has set aside $40 billion to deal with the disaster and has already paid out $7 billion to victims of the spill.

Transocean, the owner of the oil rig which BP was operating, and Halliburton, the company that helped construct the well, are also on trial for the disaster. BP claims they are not entirely responsible for the accident and that Transocean and Halliburton should share the guilt and resulting fines. “The delay indicates the judge believes there is some good-faith bargaining going on,” Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond, told Business Week in a phone interview. “I think a global settlement is very unlikely to be consummated in the next day or two. There’s just too many moving parts. The real question is can they do all in a week or will they just be able to settle parts of it.”

Via Business Week and The New York Times