BP challenges official estimate of oil spilled in Gulf

Trying to reduce civil liabilities it faces under the federal Clean Water Act, BP filed a legal motion last week to establish that the number of barrels of oil spilled as a result of its 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster is lower than U.S. government estimates -- about 17 percent lower.

In August 2010, the Flow Rate Technical Group made up of scientists and engineers from the U.S. government, universities and research institutions estimated that 4.9 million barrels of oil, or about 205 million gallons, had flowed into the environment from the failed Macondo well.

BP doesn't dispute that figure but says it should not be held liable for the 810,000 barrels of spilled oil it collected. The Clean Water Act assesses civil penalties only on oil that entered the environment and caused harm. Under the law, penalties can reach a maximum of $4,300 per barrel.

Based on the U.S. government estimate, BP could face penalties as high as $21 billion. But the company wants a $3.48 billion reduction in maximum penalties because of the oil it salvaged. That would mean less money going back to the region for restoration work.

In other news related to the BP disaster, U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier who is overseeing litigation against the company last week gave final approval to BP's medical settlement for cleanup workers, Gulf Coast residents and others who were sickened by exposure to spilled oil or the chemical dispersants used to break up the slick.

There is no limit on payouts under the settlement, and individuals will be able to file claims in the future if they can show their illnesses were caused by the spill. Plaintiffs' attorneys Steve Herman and Jim Roy said they were "extremely pleased" with the ruling, The Times-Picayune reports:

"Clean-up workers, coastal residents and the Gulf Coast region at-large will benefit greatly from the myriad programs offered by the Medical Benefits Settlement" the attorneys said in a statement. "Those most directly affected by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy will get the immediate relief they need; those who may later become sick will have the opportunity to be diagnosed early, and; the region's healthcare infrastructure will be made stronger for years to come."

However, some advocates for Gulf Coast residents have questioned the fairness of the medical settlement. Dr. Mike Robichaux, a Louisiana physician who has treated about 100 people affected by the spill through the Gulf Coast Detoxification Project, has raised concerns that the agreement does not cover the full range of health problems reported by people affected by pollution from BP's disaster.

Other recent developments related to the BP disaster:

* Earlier this month, in a case brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, a three-judge appellate panel in New Orleans ruled that BP and its partners in the Macondo well should be required to inform state officials and the public of the toxic materials released by the spill and their potential health effects.

* Last month, a federal judge gave final approval to BPs economic and property damages settlement with individuals and businesses affected by the disaster. BP has estimated that it will pay out $7.8 billion for economic, property loss and medical claims.

* In November, BP reached a record $4.5 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission over criminal wrongdoing related to the disaster. Transocean, the Swiss company that owned the Deepwater Horizon, reached a separate $1.4 billion settlement with DOJ earlier this month.

The massive trial to determine liability related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster is set to get underway in New Orleans on Feb. 25. The first two witnesses called to the stand reportedly will be BP American Chair Lamar McKay and Mark Bly, BP's executive vice president for safety and operational risk.