(For use by New York Times News Service Clients)

c.2013 Houston Chronicle

And if the oil giant been prepared to respond to an emergency, its Macondo well could have been sealed long before a capping stack stemmed the flow on July 15, 2010, attorneys for spill victims, government attorneys and BP's contractors on the Deepwater Horizon rig said in court.

''Eighty-seven days," said plaintiffs' attorney Brian Barr. The cost of BP's failure to spend any time or money on spillcontrol procedures cost the Gulf of Mexico several more weeks of environmental damage, he said.

The first words in Barr's opening statements, which launched the high-stakes second phase of BP's civil trial, referenced the nearly three-month period during which millions of barrels of oil escaped from the offshore well and became the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

In coming weeks, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier will hear testimony and arguments surrounding BP's effort to stop the gusher and how much oil spewed into the Gulf.

The court will also hear attorneys debate how much BP should pay in fines under the Clean Water Act - an amount that could run as high as $18.1 billion under the government estimate of spilled oil.

BP has pegged its overall spill tab at $42 billion to-date, but that figure could grow significantly.

An attorney for BP said Monday that immediately after the spill on April 20, 2010, the company set up several teams of well control experts in Houston to work on different methods for capping the well. BP's response plan for a spill met industry standards, which included quickly starting relief-well drilling and forming teams of experts to analyze the problem, said Mike Brock, an attorney for BP.

''Critical source control decisions had to be made in the face of significant uncertainty," Brock said. "The quality and scale of the work carried out by BP, industry and the government were unprecedented."

But Barr said BP's plans before the spill were nothing more than "lip service," and that BP had never conducted response drills in deep water. The company's employees "were asked to do a job they had not been taught to do," Barr said.

Fines under the Clean Water Act could fall between $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel, depending on whether the court rules the company was negligent or grossly negligent. The court also could set the fines lower.

The government estimates 4.2 billion barrels escaped from Macondo; BP contends the number is 2.45 billion.

The key difference: The flow rate, or the measure of how fast oil flowed out of the well.

Citing internal documents and emails, plaintiffs attorneys Monday alleged BP's public flow rate estimate of 5,000 barrels per day was much lower than what some internal models were telling BP engineers. Some within BP estimated the flow rate could have been as high as 100,000 barrels per day, according to emails presented.

In May 2010, BP tried and failed to cap the well using a method known as "top kill." Brad Brian, another plaintiffs' attorney, said BP knew the procedure would fail if the flow rate was above 15,000 barrels per day.

The well was ultimately sealed after BP deployed a capping stack to the site in July.

''What the success in July shows is that it could have been done earlier," Brian said.

But Brock, the attorney for BP, argued several government officials said they did not rely on BP's flow rate estimates during the effort to stop the spill, and it "defies common sense" to suggest BP would prolong the spill by pursuing multibillion-dollar procedures simply to avoid admitting it had misrepresented flow rates, which were unreliable.

The judge is not expected to make a ruling on the case until after a third phase of the trial, which could be next year. This phase of the trial is slated to run 16 days. XXX - End of Story