NEW ORLEANS, Fri Mar 30, 2012 – BP Plc has accused the U.S. government of withholding evidence that may show the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill was smaller than federal officials claimed, a key issue in determining the oil company’s liability.
A reduction in the size of the spill would lower the maximum civil fine BP could be forced to pay under the U.S. Clean Water Act, a sum now estimated as high as $17.6 billion.
The government is one of many plaintiffs suing BP over the April 20, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 workers and triggered the largest U.S. offshore oil spill.
In a filing late on Thursday with the U.S. District Court in New Orleans, BP said more than 10,000 documents the government is refusing to turn over “appear to relate to flow rate issues” at the company’s ruptured Macondo well.
BP said the documents, which the government considers privileged because they reflect policy deliberations, may show that an August 2010 estimate that 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled from the well is too high.
“The United States’ invocation of the deliberative process privilege here sweeps too broadly,” because it shields evidence concerning “a factual issue, namely, the amount of oil discharged,” wrote Don Haycraft, a lawyer for BP.
“Fundamental fairness” requires that BP get access to this evidence for its defense, he added.
Wyn Hornbuckle, a U.S. Department of Justice spokesman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.