Campbell’s ‘top kill’ oil plug procedure looks like this

This is what it looks like right now 5,000 feet down as champion oil-leak-stopper Pat Campbell attempts to plug the Deepwater Horizon gusher that has been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico unimpeded for 37 days. For what it’s worth, BP’s live stream is not showing a mere broken pipe and plume of oil, as it has mostly so far. Today there is equipment and it seems to be doing something. It looks like a still from Star Wars. There is hope. Also: BP’s civil liability may be (sort of) fair after all– to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.

This screen shot was taken at 3:15 Mountain Time. Note that, as BP cautions, “throughout the extended top kill procedure – which may take up to two days to complete – very significant changes in the appearance of the flows at the seabed may be expected. These will not provide a reliable indicator of the overall progress, or success or failure, of the top kill operation as a whole.”

More news coming out today may be putting additional pressure on BP to finally get the job done– as if there hadn’t been enough pressure already, but maybe there wasn’t.

Reuters reports that despite Republican lawmakers’ repeated refusal to up corporate liability for the catastrophe, the civil liability might well be staggering due to laws written in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska:

A clause buried deep in the U.S. Clean Water Act may expose BP and others to civil fines that aren’t limited to any finite cap — unlike a $75 million limit on compensation for economic damages. The Act allows the government to seek civil penalties in court for every drop of oil that spills into U.S. navigable waters, including the area of BP’s leaking well.

As a result, the U.S. government could seek to fine BP or others up to $4,300 for every barrel leaked into the U.S. Gulf, according to legal experts and official documents.

So far, analysts and experts calculating potential oil spill liabilities have mostly concentrated on the cost of the clean-up and compensation for economic damages to affected parties. Some have also discussed criminal liabilities.

But the potential for civil fines has received scant attention — and they could add up very quickly, depending on how agressive the U.S. government is in pursuing them.

The threat of hefty fines underscores the importance of quantifying how much oil is pouring into the Gulf. As BP seeks to staunch the leak that has now been gushing for at least 33 days, it has estimated a spill rate of 5,000 barrels per day. But some experts say the volume — and hence the fines — could be more than 10 times higher.

The little-known, seldom applied clause in the Clean Water Act was added in 1990 after the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, and was intended to beef up the arsenal of penalties the government can apply to oil spillers to deter future disasters.

“These civil penalties could be staggeringly high, possibly running into the billions,” said Professor David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law program at University of Michigan.

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