AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The government is asking a New Orleans federal judge to impose a stiff financial penalty on oil giant BP for the worst offshore environmental disaster in U.S. history. It's been nearly five years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. Eleven workers were killed, and oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months fouling beaches, wetlands and wildlife from Texas to Florida. BP is back in court today to determine how much it should pay in civil fines for the disaster.
NPR's Debbie Elliott is in New Orleans watching the case and joins us now. And Debbie, the federal government says BP should face the maximum penalty for polluting the Gulf. How much money are we talking about here?
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: We're talking about lot of money, a fine that would be unprecedented under the Clean Water Act. The federal government today asked for somewhere between 11.7 and 13.7 billion dollars - that's billion with a B. Now, the most BP could be fined under the Clean Water Act is based on how much oil spilled, and that figure is the high-end of that - the 13.7 billion.
Now, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier has already found that BP's gross negligence led to the Deepwater Horizon explosion. BP is appealing that decision from the first phase of this trial. But in the meantime, he's hearing testimony this week and for the next few weeks on what kind of penalty he should assess that would both punish BP and serve as a deterrent to another such disaster as this.
CORNISH: And, as you mentioned, this huge fine - I mean, the biggest fine ever imposed under the Clean Water Act - what justification does the government offer for imposing the toughest penalty possible on BP?
ELLIOTT: Well, the government sort of tipped off different factors. Under the Clean Water Act, the judge can consider eight things - things that include the seriousness of the violation, BP's degree of culpability, the company's history of prior violations and what efforts BP made to mitigate the spell. So during opening arguments today the Justice Department's attorney, Steven O'Rourke, really zeroed in on the sheer size of and the huge impact of this oil spill. He played an interview with BP's CEO, Tony Hayward. You remember him. He was the one who got so much flak for talking about wanting his life back during the crisis. But this little clip that was played in court today - Tony Hayward said it's clear we're dealing with a serious catastrophe - again, the government trying to underscore the serious nature of the oil spill.
O'Rourke showed photographs of oiled birds, thick, dark oil floating in the Gulf and maps that showed the 1,100 miles of shoreline that was oiled over the Gulf States. He talked about how thousands of people are harmed by the spill, the ultimate impact still remains to be told. And he thinks that, you know, the judge should not take into account BP's claim that everything is much better on the Gulf Coast today.
CORNISH: And BP is trying to convince the judge that it doesn't deserve the maximum penalty in part because of how it responded to the spill. What more did the company argue?
ELLIOTT: Basically, BP is saying it did the right thing and it should get credit for that. BP attorney Mike Brock talked about the diligent work by the company to try to control the blown-out well, while at the same time trying to contain the effects of this spill - collecting the oil at sea, skimming it, burning it, dispersing it, trying to keep it from reaching those fragile shorelines and wetlands. He talked about during the peak of the response there were some 44,000 workers in the Gulf. There were 6,300 vessels working all the same time.
He argued that that work significantly changed the outcome of the spill, and he thinks the judge should take into account what he calls the massive amount of money - nearly $34 billion - that BP has already spent to mitigate the environmental and economic harm from the disaster.
CORNISH: Finally, Debbie, falling oil prices - could that play into this?
ELLIOTT: Well, BP is certainly making that argument. They say, you know, that hampers their ability to pay. It means that a lower fine would inflict plenty of punishment in this climate. But lawyers for the government counter that BP has recently told investors that price volatility is something they can handle, so it'll be curious if the judge accepts that. He said, you know, why can't we just structure a payout over several years? And the lawyer said, you know, maybe you could.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in New Orleans. Debbie, thank you.
ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.