BP chose to “cut corners” when an oil pipeline was built across land belonging to Colombian farmers, then put up “a smokescreen of obfuscation” when things went wrong, a QC has said in the High Court.
The UK oil group “pointed the finger at everyone else but did not acknowledge its responsibilities”, said the QC.
The accusations were made as the farmers opened a legal battle in London for compensation for the serious damage they allege was caused to their land because of BP negligence.
Alex Layton QC, appearing for the farmers, said BP – “one of the most powerful global corporations” – had promised fair compensation for any damage caused.
Mr Layton said: “BP broke that promise. We ask the court to make them keep it.”
BP says construction of the Ocensa pipeline was carried out “to a high standard” and it will defend the case “vigorously”.
The company is being sued for about £18 million in what is believed to be one of the largest environmental cases of its kind.
The action, expected to last four months, involves 109 farmers from 73 farms, mostly subsistence peasant farmers known as “campesinos”.
Six sample claims are being heard by Mr Justice Stuart-Smith to “resolve or clarify” the issues arising in the larger group action.
The Ocensa oil pipeline was constructed in the mid 1990s after more crude oil was discovered in the Cusiana-Cupiagua oilfields.
The farmers entered into contracts with British company Equion Energia – formerly BP Exploration (Colombia) Ltd (BPXC).
They say negligence in the management of its construction resulted in soil erosion, reduced vegetation coverage and affected vital water sources. Agreements were allegedly also breached.
The Ocensa project was undertaken in a partnership with Colombia’s national oil company and four other multinational companies.
The legal battle comes after a recent ruling by a US court that BP acted with gross negligence during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The hearing is in the technology and construction division of the High Court. Witnesses have travelled from remote rural parts of Colombia to give evidence.
At the opening of the case, the judge welcomed two of them, Rogelio Velez Montoya and Rodrigo Mesa Leon, to the UK telling them: “We will spend a long time looking at your case.”
Shubhaa Srinivasan, the partner at solicitors firm Leigh Day who is representing the farmers, said: “At last the farmers are going to have a chance to tell their stories and to have their case decided.
“We feel it is really important that big companies are held to account for the way in which they undertake their activities abroad especially when those activities take place in remote corners of faraway places out of the public gaze.”
Mr Layton told the judge the farmers’ lives and livelihood were “interwoven with the land, and they live in a way far removed from city dwellers in a modern market economy”. The farming methods they used were viable and sustainable.
BP was “one of the largest and most powerful global corporations armed with knowledge, power and resources”.
The key to the case was what went wrong when construction workers cut a swathe through the farmers’ land to drive the pipeline through central Colombia to the sea in the north.
In a reference to Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker 2014 prize-winning book, Mr Layton compared it to “a narrow road to the deep north – but the swathe was anything but narrow”.
He said BP knew how to build a pipeline with minimal impact to the environment and knew the risk of cutting corners.
“For whatever reasons, commercial or otherwise, they chose to cut these corners and run these risks.”
The result was soil erosion, sediment building up in the watercourses and reduced fertility of the land. This damaged the livelihoods of farmers who were offered “wholly inadequate”
compensation, said Mr Layton.
He said BP was “at the heart of this project” and retained for itself the direction and control of the activities that led to the damage.
But it was now seeking to distance itself from the project, pointing out that it was undertaken by a joint venture corporate vehicle. The oil giant was “pointing the finger at everyone else and not acknowledging its responsibilities”.
Mr Layton said: “BP knew the risks, and knew how to avoid them, but chose to run these risks. It signally failed to meet its own standards.”
He accused BP of seeking to put up a smokescreen of obfuscation, claiming, among other things, that the farmers’ methods were unviable and unsustainable and their farms were going to fail.
But the farmers would show the damage they had suffered was BP’s responsibility and would do so for the most part relying on Colombian law and the constitutional principles of fairness and equity “and the constitutional importance of environmental protection”, he said.