BP chose to "cut corners" when building a pipeline across land belonging to Colombian farmers leading to damage to their livelihoods.
The company is being sued for roughly £18m by 109 farmers from 73 farms, mostly subsistence peasant farmers known as "campesinos", over the construction of the Ocensa oil pipeline that was constructed in the mid-1990s after more crude oil was discovered in the Cusiana-Cupiagua oilfields.
It is believed to be one of the largest environmental cases of its kind and six sample claims are being heard by Justice Stuart-Smith to "resolve or clarify" the issues arising in the larger group action, which is expected to last four months.
Alex Layton QC opened the farmers case at the High Court today by saying the British company put up "a smokescreen of obfuscation" when things went wrong with the project.
The oil group "pointed the finger at everyone else but did not acknowledge its responsibilities", said the QC as he outlined the case of the farmers who has seeking compensation for the serious damage they allege was caused to their land because of BP’s negligence.
He added that BP – “one of the most powerful global corporations” – had promised fair compensation for any damage caused. Layton added: "BP broke that promise. We ask the court to make them keep it."
BP says construction of the Ocensa pipeline, which was undertaken in a partnership with Colombia's national oil company and four other multinational companies, was carried out "to a high standard" and it will defend the case "vigorously".
The farmers entered into contracts with British company Equion Energia – formerly BP Exploration (Colombia) Ltd (BPXC) and they say negligence in the management of the pipelines construction resulted in soil erosion, reduced vegetation coverage and affected vital water sources. Agreements were allegedly also breached.
The key to the case was what went wrong when construction workers cut a swathe through the farmers' land to drive the pipeline through central Colombia to the sea in the north.
He said BP knew how to build a pipeline with minimal impact to the environment and knew the risk of cutting corners. "For whatever reasons, commercial or otherwise, they chose to cut these corners and run these risks," added Layton.
The result was soil erosion, sediment building up in the watercourses and reduced fertility of the land. This damaged the livelihoods of farmers who were offered "wholly inadequate" compensation, said Layton.
He said BP was "at the heart of this project" and retained for itself the direction and control of the activities that led to the damage, but it was now seeking to distance itself from the project, pointing out that it was undertaken by a joint venture corporate vehicle.
Layton said: "BP knew the risks, and knew how to avoid them, but chose to run these risks. It signally failed to meet its own standards."
He accused BP of seeking to put up a smokescreen of obfuscation, claiming, among other things, that the farmers' methods were unviable and unsustainable and their farms were going to fail.
But the farmers would show the damage they had suffered was BP's responsibility and would do so for the most part relying on Colombian law and the constitutional principles of fairness and equity "and the constitutional importance of environmental protection", he said.
The hearing is in the technology and construction division of the High Court. Witnesses have travelled from remote rural parts of Colombia to give evidence.
Shubhaa Srinivasan, the partner at solicitors firm Leigh Day who is representing the farmers, said: "At last the farmers are going to have a chance to tell their stories and to have their case decided.
"We feel it is really important that big companies are held to account for the way in which they undertake their activities abroad especially when those activities take place in remote corners of faraway places out of the public gaze."