World and Nation

Settlement talks pick up ahead of BP oil spill trial

NEW ORLEANS — Nearly two years after the oil rig explosion that killed 11 people and spilled millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the myriad plaintiffs suing BP and other companies over the disaster are about to get their day in court.

Or not.

With the start of the high-profile trial set for next Monday, and the specter of potential liability that some experts have estimated at $40 billion, BP and other defendants are stepping up negotiations to end the litigation before Judge Carl J. Barbier of U.S. District Court picks up his gavel.

“We are ready to settle, if we can do so on fair and reasonable terms,” Robert Dudley, BP’s chief executive, said this month during a conference call about the company’s earnings. “But we are preparing vigorously for trial.”

Charges from hundreds of civil cases from plaintiffs that include the U.S. government, state and local governments, and individuals and businesses have been consolidated in a federal courtroom here. Along with BP, defendants include Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig; Halliburton, the company that poured the concrete that lined the well; and Cameron International, which made the industry fail-safe device known as a blowout preventer.

Numerous reports have identified errors and problems that contributed to the largest oil spill in U.S. history, including a faulty concrete job, poor decisions leading up to the blast and the failure of the blowout preventer’s rams and blades to stop the oil.

Several attorneys familiar with the negotiations said settlement talks had intensified in recent weeks. On Friday, Moex Offshore became the first company among the defendants to settle with the government. Moex, which owned 10 percent of the well but did not have a role in operating it, agreed to pay $90 million to federal and state governments. The Department of Justice said the deal included $70 million in civil penalties, the most ever under the 1972 federal Clean Water Act — a record that is likely to be broken before long.

Some of the remaining obstacles to a larger settlement deal are among the defendant companies, rather than between them and the plaintiffs, and concern the amounts that the various parties would contribute toward the negotiated sum.

To many familiar with the case, there is little question that BP would be better off settling.

For one thing, a settlement with the federal government could involve a resolution of criminal charges, which have yet to be filed. Pressure on BP to settle also comes from the company’s continuing desire to drill in the Gulf, said David M. Uhlmann, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School.