U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says he's ready to take BP and other defendants to court for their role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico.
The comments were made Tuesday as BP, three other energy companies and U.S. prosecutors try to piece together a settlement after U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans postponed a trial scheduled to begin this Monday by a week, until March 5.
Rather than begin a trial that could last as long as 18 months, Barbier, a judge since 1998, suggested the parties might reach a settlement he could approve. He is scheduled to hear the case without a jury.
Settlement talks appear to be fruitless so far, Reuters reported.
"We are prepared to go to trial. We were ready to go to trial yesterday," Holder testified before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Reuters reported.
The other defendants are Anadarko, one of the nation's largest natural gas companies; Triton, an oil-field service company, and Transocean, which operated the ill-fated rig.
Halliburton, the Houston-based energy services company that provided the cement that finally sealed the well, is being sued by BP in a separate suit. BP says every company involved maintains some level of responsibility for the disaster.
The Justice Department has charged the defendants with civil penalties under the Clean Water Act and unlimited liability under the Oil Pollution Act for spilling 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico between April 20 and July 2010. Eleven men were killed in the explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Over the weekend, reports circulated that BP was in talks to negotiate a $14 billion settlement with the thousands of businesses affected by the oil spill. The British company had aside $20 billion to cover such claims and has so far paid out $6 billion. The reported settlement would take the remaining money and close down the claims fund.
With four days to go before the trial's start, it remains unclear if those talks continue.
"BP and the Plaintiff Steering Committee are working to reach agreement to fairly compensate people and businesses affected by the Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill," read a statement published Sunday on BP's Web site. "There can be no assurance that these discussions will lead to a settlement agreement."
The company stands to pay billions in environmental fines and could be forced to pay $4,300 per barrel of oil leaked if Barbier rules BP was grossly negligent in its handling of the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout.
That could expose BP to a judgment as high as $21.5 billion.
Natural gas rising back up through the well bore ignited, causing the drilling rig to sink and break an underwater pipe.
Roughly 5 million barrels of crude gushed into the Gulf of Mexico before crews were able to contain the flow of oil and cap the oil well three months later.
Shares of principal defendants were not much changed, indicating investors don't believe they are at great risk. Shares of BP traded at $47.33, while Anadarko's were at $84.15, not much below their 52-week highs. Shares of Transocean were at $53.65, about 37 percent below their high.
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