BP to meet with feds on parameters of oil spill penalty trials

HOUSTON – A federal judge on Wednesday ordered BP and U.S. attorneys to meet next month to discuss how the “penalty phase” in BP’s oil spill trial will proceed.

That meeting may decide some parameters of the third and final phase in the civil trial, such as how many trial days or expert witnesses would be required. The proposed penalty phase itself would determine how much BP owes in environmental fines for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Last week, U.S. attorneys said in court documents that a three-week trial with a limited number of witnesses would be sufficient for the key chapter in BP’s civil trial.

BP responded in court documents that U.S. attorneys were attempting to truncate the penalty phase, and recommended time for “substantial discovery and rigorous trial presentations for” eight statutory factors used to determine Clean Water Act fines. The British oil giant contended it is premature to set limits on facts, expert witnesses and time allotted for trial presentation.

Legal experts have said it appears unlikely BP and the U.S. government will settle the multibillion-dollar dispute before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier begins issuing a series of rulings connected to two earlier phases in the trial.

Barbier is expected to rule soon on how much oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and other issues, including whether BP was grossly negligent in the lead up to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Those rulings will trigger the penalty phase, in which Barbier must decide on another series of questions to set BP’s fines under the Clean Water Act. The fines could cost BP up to $18 billion.

The meeting to decide certain case management issues of the penalty phase will take place March 21, according to court documents.