US government prosecutors spent the first day of a long-delayed trial into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster arguing that corporate greed was the cause of the explosion that killed 11 people and created America’s worst offshore oil spill.
A tense day in a federal court in New Orleans saw all four companies involved in the disaster accused of systematically disregarding safety as they sought to extract oil from ever greater depths in the Gulf of Mexico. The Macondo well was called “the well from hell” by a worker, the court heard.
The US government is seeking fines of almost $18bn (£11.8bn) from BP. Its lawyers claimed the bulk of the blame for the disaster lay with the UK company. Most legal experts thought BP would settle with the government over the weekend, but the company has vigorously denied it was grossly negligent in the spill.
The first part of the trial will apportion blame for the disaster between BP; Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig; Halliburton, which cemented the well; and Cameron, the manufacturer of a piece of safety equipment designed to prevent a well from blowing up.
District Judge Carl Barbier said he expects the first part of the trial to last three months. Government lawyers insisted before the trial that evidence would prove their accusation that BP was grossly negligent, a finding that would see the oil giant fined the maximum amount under the US Clean Water Act.
In his opening statement, Mr Underhill cited an email sent from John Guide, who was BP’s manager of the Macondo well, to his manager, David Sims, four days before the explosion on April 2010.
In it, Mr Guide says that his team are “flying by the seat of our pants” and that pressure from above is creating “paranoia” as they pushed to complete a well that the US government claims was $50m over budget by the time it exploded.
In an email response read in court, Mr Sims replied that he was off to “dance practice”, where he would be dancing to the Village People.
BP, which is one of the largest deepwater drillers in the Gulf of Mexico, has always denied that it cut corners to speed up the lucrative flow of oil from the region.
However, Jim Roy, a lawyer representing local businesses damaged by the spill, said BP’s senior management had applied heavy pressure in early 2010 on its Gulf of Mexico operations to speed up production, because it needed to find another $7bn to help pay for a dividend to shareholders.
BP shares closed up 1.6pc at 451½p in London on Monday, but investors who wanted the oil giant to settle before the matter reached court may be bracing for a lengthy trial. BP has set aside $42.2bn to cover the cost of the spill. The trial continues.