In this May 8, 2010, photo released by the U.S. Air Force, ships move an oil boom into place near Cat Island off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi as part of Deepwater Horizon oil spill response. - AP

BP civil trial over gulf oil spill nears

The ink has barely dried on the record-breaking $4 billion check BP wrote to settle criminal charges stemming from its Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster before the energy giant is again confronted with a protracted court battle that could cost it billions more.

The civil trial scheduled to begin next week could expose BP to about $17 billion in fines for violating the Clean Water Act. If imposed, the fine would be the largest environmental penalty in U.S. history.

The first phase of the nonjury trial will focus on the cause of the April 20, 2010, explosion that killed 11 people and spewed an estimated 4 million barrels of oil into the gulf over 84 days.

Federal District Court Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans will decide whether BP's actions on the drilling rig were negligent — as has already been determined in the criminal case — or grossly negligent, which could force the company to pay significantly higher fines.

The second part of the trial, expected to begin in late summer, will attempt to determine how much oil was released. That difficult accounting will determine the size of the federal fine, which could be as little as $4.5 billion.

On Tuesday, an agreement was reached to deduct 810,000 barrels of oil from the government's spill estimate because some oil from the crippled well was captured by BP before it could leak into the ocean.

Legal experts had expected a pretrial settlement as attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice and BP have been working toward a deal. But this week the London-based company announced it was dissatisfied with the government's offers and vowed to take the case to trial.

"Gross negligence is a very high bar that BP believes cannot be met in this case," said Rupert Bondy, BP's general counsel. "This was a tragic accident, resulting from multiple causes and involving multiple parties. We firmly believe we were not grossly negligent."

Whether or not BP's announcement amounts to a bargaining ploy, federal prosecutors pledge to be ready for a complicated trial that could stretch into next year.

"We intend to prove that BP was grossly negligent and that the company engaged in willful misconduct in causing this disastrous oil spill," Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in a statement.

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