BP lied about how much oil was leaking from its Macondo well and took too long to cap it, a US court has been told.
The accusation was made by plaintiffs' lawyers yesterday at the opening of the second phase of the company's trial over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, which left 11 men dead and huge stretches of sea and coast fouled with oil.
A lawyer for BP told the US District Court in New Orleans that the company did not misrepresent the oil flow and followed US standards before and after the spill, the worst marine pollution disaster in the USA.
The British oil company is fighting to hold down fines that could hit $18bn (£12bn) at the trial, which will determine damages. BP's annualized earnings, based on last quarter, are running at about $17bn.
"BP refused to spend any time or money preparing to stop a deepwater blowout at its source," said Brian Barr, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, which include people affected by the spill, the US government and Gulf states, and BP's former contractors.
"BP then made the situation worse," Barr said. "By lying about the amount of flow from the well."
The second phase of the trial, expected to last a month, is focused on how much oil spewed from the well and whether efforts to plug it were adequate.
"BP had a response plan that was fully consistent with US standards for spill preparedness," said a BP lawyer, Mike Brock. "BP did not misrepresent the flow rate in a way that caused a delay in the shut in of the well. It made reasonable decisions based on what was known at each step along the way."
Internal company emails presented at the trial on Monday showed BP saying publicly after the spill in April 2010 that 5,000 barrels of oil a day were leaking into the ocean when it knew up to 100,000 barrels a day could have been leaking.
John Wilson, a professor at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology who was called to testify against the company, said BP's reliance on unsubstantiated estimates of the size of the leak contributed to poor decisions on how to plug the well. BP took 87 days and several attempts to cap it.
In the costliest scenario the fines under the Clean Water Act could reach $17.6bn – an amount well beyond the $42bn BP has so far set aside for clean-up, compensation and damages.
Judge Carl Barbier said he would not assign penalties for BP until the third phase of the trial, expected early next year.
A Mississippi environmental group called for hefty fines.
"When you drill a well in 5,000 feet of water and you literally have no idea what you do if there's an accident - to me that's gross negligence on the face of it," said David Muth, director of the Mississippi River Delta Restoration program.