Last week, we covered the DOJ’s use of expert witnesses in the final penalty phase of its environmental lawsuit against British Petroleum (BP), and as the trial progressed this week the oil giant began presenting its own experts on the environment and Gulf economy in an effort to minimize the damages the company owes for its role in the 2010 Deepwater disaster. The DOJ presented a variety of experts earlier in the trial who explained the negative impact on the Gulf environment and economy in support of the government’s argument that BP should pay nearly all of the maximum $13 billion in fines, but the company fired back this week with its own experts whose testimony suggests the fine should be drastically less than its potential.
BP Calls Environmental Impact Expert Witness
First to take the stand for BP was retired US Coast guard Captain Frank Paskewich, an expert witness who assisted the 2010 clean-up operation and now manages a New Orleans-based oil spill response team. Capt. Paskewich testified that BP was prepared with a spill response plan that allowed the company to “pull the trigger” on effective containment and clean-up efforts immediately after the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 men and created the worst offshore oil spill in American history. Paskewich noted that BP took the lead and became the responsible party in the wake of the spill, and testified that the company’s extensive efforts had a significant effect on containing the damage.
Citing government reports that BP had taken “safe and effective” measures to minimize the impact on the Gulf shoreline, Paskewich testified that the company had cleaned an estimated 1.2 million barrels, which amounted to 37% of the total oil spilled. According to Paskewich’s expert testimony, BP’s efforts to clean the spill by use of skimming boats and surface burning – which involves burning the oil on the surface of the water before it comes to shore – were unmatched by other entities working to mitigate the disaster and had a significant effect on minimizing the damage to the Gulf coast region.
Government Cross Examines BP Expert Witness
On cross examination, DOJ attorneys attacked Paskewich for currently working with BP in ongoing clean-up efforts, suggesting his expert testimony was biased in favor of a company that provided his organization with substantial funding. This became a relevant point when the Justice Department went on to have Paskewich admit that BP was not alone in its clean-up efforts, but was assisted by state governments, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other private companies. Suggesting that he overestimated the contribution of BP, the DOJ went on to question Paskewich about concerns over the long term impact of BP’s clean-up actions, particularly surface burning of oil that could release toxins into the air.
Throughout the questioning, BP’s expert witness stayed firm that his interaction with the company was not the basis for bias, but instead gave him the opportunity to interact directly with BP and assess the impact the company had after the Deepwater spill. Paskewich went on to acknowledge that there may be a cost to surface burning, but testified that BP made the right choice to pay that cost rather than let the oil reach the shoreline. Paskewich’s expert opinion is not the only one that the company will rely on, and as the trial progresses BP plans to call a number of other professionals to assist its cause.
BP Lines Up Expert Witnesses for Upcoming Testimony
According to reports on the progress of the BP penalty trial, the company plans on calling a number of expert witnesses specializing in environmental and economic impact of oil spills, including:
- John Tunnell, Jr.: Mr. Tunnell is a marine biology expert witness working for the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A & M who will be called to present his opinion on the effect of the Deepwater spill on the fish and bird populations of the Gulf region. Tunnell Jr. is called in direct response to the selection of DOJ experts who testified to the grave effect that BP’s actions had on the Gulf environment.
- Robert M Daines: Mr. Daines is a law professor at Stanford University who will explain the legal relationship between the research team that operated the oil drill and BP, its parent company. Daines’s legal expert testimony will likely provide an argument that distances BP from responsibility for financial damages under the law.
- Loren Scott: Mr. Scott is an expert economist from Louisiana State University who will testify about the impact the spill had on the Gulf Coat economy. Like Tunnell, Scott is called as a direct response to testimony from DOJ experts who testified last week about the significant impact BP’s actions had on the Gulf region.
Attorneys for BP are arguing that the company should not be forced to pay the maximum potential fine of $13 billion because of a number of mitigating factors that have been, or will be, explained by expert witnesses during the trial.