"This one is off the charts in terms of size and significance," said Eric Schaeffer, the director of the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington and former head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Regulatory Enforcement.
BP has to weigh its chances of getting off cheaper by piecing together a sweeping settlement or put its fate in the hands of one man, a federal judge who will hear testimony in lieu of a jury. If the judge sides with plaintiffs on the amount of oil spilled and determines BP was grossly negligent, the company conceivably could face up to $52 billion in environmental fines and compensation alone, according to an AP analysis.
While such a scenario is unlikely, it illustrates the broad range and staggering sums at play.
No matter what, the case is all but guaranteed to set records as the most expensive environmental disaster in history, far surpassing the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989. Exxon ultimately settled with the U.S. government for $1 billion, which would be about $1.8 billion today.
If BP settles, it's almost certain to dwarf previous deals the U.S. has reached with corporate offenders in any industry. That record now stands at $2.3 billion against Pfizer Inc. in 2009 to settle claims over the painkiller Bextra, according to the Justice Department.
And once the civil case is resolved, depending on the scope of any settlement, BP still could face criminal fines; penalties for violations of oil pollution, clean water and wildlife protection laws; and still-pending economic losses due to the partial shutdown of the Gulf. Morgan Stanley analysts estimated criminal fines would come in between $5 billion and $15 billion in any eventual settlement.