But through it all, the company has maintained that it was not chiefly responsible for the accident, and that its contractors in the operation, Halliburton and Transocean, should shoulder as much, if not more, of the blame.
On Thursday, a federal judge here for the first time bluntly rejected those arguments, finding that BP was indeed the primary culprit and that only it had acted with “conscious disregard of known risks.” He added that BP’s “conduct was reckless.”
By finding that BP was, in legal parlance, grossly negligent in the disaster, and not merely negligent, United States District Court Judge Carl J. Barbier opened the possibility of $18 billion in new civil penalties for BP, nearly quadruple the maximum Clean Water Act penalty for simple negligence and far more than the $3.5 billion the company has set aside.
The ruling stands as a milestone in environmental law given that this was the biggest offshore oil spill in American history, legal experts said, and serves as a warning for the oil companies that continue to drill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where high pressures and temperatures in the wells test the most modern drilling technologies.
“We are pleased,” United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said of the ruling. “The court’s finding will ensure that the company is held fully accountable for its recklessness.”
The decision also casts a cloud over BP’s future. Its reputation has already been sullied and important holdings in Russia are at risk because of tensions in Ukraine. In addition to the $28 billion in claim payments and cleanup costs it has paid, BP has been forced to divest itself of more than 10 percent of its oil and gas reserves, along with valuable pipelines and refining facilities to pay claims and increase its profitability. BP shares fell by nearly 6 percent Thursday, closing at $44.89.
In a statement, BP said it “strongly disagrees with the decision” and would immediately appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. BP added that the ruling was “not supported by the evidence at trial,” and that “the law is clear that proving gross negligence is a very high bar that was not met in this case.”
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