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Oil giant BP was back in a New Orleans federal courtroom today, arguing over an issue that could cost the company billions of dollars in fines and penalties. This is part of the complex civil trial connected to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. This part of the trial focuses on how much oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico before crews succeeded in stopping the out-of-control well. NPR's Jeff Brady was in the courtroom, and he joins me now from New Orleans. And, Jeff, this is a key question here, just how much oil spilled into the Gulf.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: It is a key question. And we're talking about the period between the explosion on April 20, 2010, when 11 workers on that oil rig were killed and then about three months later when the flow of oil from the well was finally stopped. We all saw the video of the oil gushing out and how many gallons that was, the total amount. That'll determine how much BP has to pay in federal fines and penalties. The federal government is arguing it was about 176 million gallons of oil that was spilled. BP says that it's much lower than that, about 103 million gallons. And, of course, that's a lot of oil either way. But between those two figures is the potential for billions more or less in fines and penalties.
And part of the question still depends on Judge Carl Barbier's decision of whether BP was grossly negligent here. If he finds that the company was, we could be talking about fines up to about $18 billion. And these would be levied under the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Control Act.
BLOCK: So the federal government's figure is about 70 percent higher than the figure from BP. How is the judge supposed to figure out what the truth is?
BRADY: This is a really tricky question because there's no way to measure it for sure. No one was there. No one knows what the truth is. It all happened down on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico over the course of nearly three months. But there is some data and there are experts with theories. The U.S. Department of Justice lawyer Steve O'Rourke told Judge Carl Barbier that there is some data that the government has, and its experts have used theories to determine how the oil flows and that sort of thing to come up with their figure of 176 million gallons. But BP tried to cast doubt on that because there's just too much that's not known to arrive at a good estimate, the company said. Instead, BP's lawyer, Mike Brock, argued that the judge should rely on the company's method for estimating how much oil gushed into the Gulf.
And that essentially involves measuring how much oil was in the underground reservoir before the accident and then after the well was capped. And then the difference between those two amounts would essentially be how much oil escaped into the water. The federal government's response is that BP is just cherry-picking data here to reach a much lower number.
BLOCK: Mm-hmm. And, Jeff, this is a trial that's been going on for much of this year. Any sense of a timeframe for when this will all be over?
BRADY: That's not exactly clear. The trial started in February. The first phase was about who was at fault. We're still waiting for decisions on that. This is a bench trial. There's no jury involved. So that'll be the judge's decision. Last week, the judge heard about the process of bringing the well under control.
And now for the next three weeks, we're going to hear about how much oil spilled. And the thing to remember here is that at any time during this trial, a settlement could come. So we could even be at the last day and all the sides would settle the case, and this would all be over.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Jeff Brady, covering the BP trial in New Orleans. Jeff, thanks very much.
BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.