BP 'lied' about size of oil spill in Gulf disaster, court told

BP on Monday night stood accused of telling ''outright lies'' and withholding crucial evidence as it tried to hide the amount of oil that was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the damaged Macondo well when it blew open in 2010.

As the second phase of the trial into the disaster opened in New Orleans, and with billions of dollars of potential fines in the balance, the oil giant's lawyer, Mike Brock, said the company had done everything it could to cap the gushing well that was exposed following an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that led to the deaths of 11 workers.

But Brian Barr, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said BP had failed to prepare for such an accident. In his opening statement, Mr Barr also said the evidence ''will show BP's outright lies caused the oil to flow'' for 87 days.

A lawyer for Transocean, the owner of the rig, also said BP had repeatedly withheld evidence about the rate at which oil was flowing. Transocean, along with engineering contractor Halliburton, has been trying to evade any responsibility for the Deepwater Ocean blowout, right from the start.

For BP, Brock countered that BP had not lied, rather that it ''made reasonable engineering decisions based on what was known along each step of the way… That's not fraud. That's not gross negligence''. He said second-guessing the company's efforts to cap the well is "Monday morning quarterbacking at its worst".

He said that BP's spill response was "extraordinary" and that the company "did not misrepresent flow rate in a way that caused a delay in the shut-in of the well".

US district judge Carl Barbier, who is presiding over the trial, is already weighing whether BP's actions ahead of the disaster and during the subsequent spill reached the level of "gross negligence". The second phase of the trial, expected to last 14 days, will cover the size of the spill and BP's efforts to contain it.

The Department of Justice says the claims 4.2 million barrels poured from Deepwater Horizon after the fatal fire and explosion. BP estimates the figure was closer to 2.4 million barrels. The figures will determine the ultimate size of BP's fine, which could be as high as $18 billion.

In court filings BP has argued the US is using "unproven methods that require significant assumptions and extrapolations" to arrive at the size of the oil spill, and intends to challenge those figures in court.

The company and its partners face fines of as much as $1,100 for each barrel of oil released into the Gulf if they are found negligent in their actions while drilling the well and in limiting the effects of the accident. Under the Clean Water Act, those fines could rise to $4,300 per barrel if the responsible parties are found to have acted with gross negligence or "wilful misconduct".

The trial has set BP against former partners including oil services companies Transocean and Halliburton. The contractors are trying to ensure that BP gets a larger share of the blame for the disaster.

Transocean and Halliburton have argued that BP could have sealed the well on 15 May 2010, two months earlier than it was actually capped, and that their liabilities should therefore be reduced to account only for oil spilled before that date.

On Monday lawyers for Transocean told the court that the well was "allowed to flow for weeks and weeks and weeks that were unnecessary" because BP had skewed its analysis.