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Environment

BP liability trial to begin over Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Almost three years after millions of barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, oil giant BP is facing its day in court. The 2010 disaster was the worst offshore oil spill in the United States.

FORT LAUDERDALE - AUGUST 07: A BP sign is seen outside the gas station August 7, 2006 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The company was trying to shut down the Prudhoe Bay oil field in northern Alaska after finding severe corrosion in a pipeline. Oil prices rose by $2 a barrel over news. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

BP Tankstelle USA

A US federal judge will preside over the trial that will determine liability for the disaster. On April 20, 2010, an explosion on BP's drilling platform Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Eighty-six days went by before the blowout was contained.

As well as causing extensive environmental damage along the US gulf coast, the oil spill negatively impacted tourism and fishing industries across several states. It also prompted a six-month ban on oil and gas drilling in the Gulf.

BP says it has already spent or committed up to $37 billion (27.8 billion euros) on cleanup, restoration, payouts, settlements and fines. But lawyers for the US Justice Department, private plaintiffs and Gulf states hope to convince US District Judge Carl Barbier the company is liable for much more.

Joining BP as defendants are rig owner Transocean Ltd and well cement services provider Halliburton Co.

But there is speculation the trial will never actually reach a decision from Judge Barbier, given BP's history of settling civil cases before or during trials. Following an explosion in 2005 at its Texas City refinery, which killed 15 people, the company settled four trials with figures in the billions of dollars. However, last-minute efforts over the weekend to reach a deal before BP's latest court appearance were unsuccessful.

"This is a game of corporate chicken," said John Zavitsanos, a Houston civil litigator speaking to the news agency Reuters. "We have tangled with BP often, and they blink."

Barber has encouraged settlement talks and has promised he will not let the case drag on for years.

"Judge Barbier has managed the case actively and moved it along toward trial pretty quickly," said Howard Erichson, a complex litigation expert and law professor at Fordham University in New York City, speaking to AP. "In terms of sheer dollar amounts and public attention, this is one of the most complex and massive disputes ever faced by the courts."

In November 2012, the US government banned BP from receiving new contracts in the country. This came shortly after the oil giant agreed to pay a $4.5 billion fine as part of a settlement in the disaster - and the company also pleaded guilty to 14 counts of criminal charges, including manslaughter and obstruction of justice.

Earlier last year, BP reached a settlement of about $7.8 billion with plaintiffs from the Gulf coast affected by the spill.

The US government estimated that 4.9 million barrels of oil escaped during the Deepwater Horizon spill, a figure that BP argues is roughly 20 percent too high.

jr/msh (Reuters, AP, dpa)