BP oil spill: Obama administration opens criminal investigations

US officials on Tuesday unveiled both long-term and short-term approaches to the BP oil spill. The strategy includes criminal investigations.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama, accompanied by BP Oil Spill Commission co-chairs former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., right, and former EPA Administrator William Reilly, walks to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, after their meeting.

The White House is doing its best to appear as if it is taking vigorous action to deal with the deepening BP oil spill disaster.

On Tuesday, administration officials unveiled what might be called a long-term, short-term approach to the crisis.

For the long term, an independent commission will study the causes of the spill. Their job will be to ensure such a thing will never happen again, said President Obama in a Rose Garden appearance.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

“They have my full support to follow the facts wherever they lead, without fear or favor,” Mr. Obama said following a meeting with the commission co-chairs – Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and US senator, and William Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

For the short term, the Obama administration is opening criminal and civil investigations into the events surrounding the spill. The move threatens BP and other firms involved with the Deepwater Horizon rig with tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars of further liability costs, among other possible penalties.

“We will closely examine the actions of those involved in the spill. If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be extremely forceful in our response,” said Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday following a meeting with state attorneys general and federal prosecutors in New Orleans.

The Gulf oil-spill commission ultimately will consist of five members. They will look at everything from whether improper cementing caused a gas blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, to whether a too-cozy relationship between oil firms and federal regulators led to a climate that contributed to the disaster.

Similar federal commissions on other subjects have made notable contributions. Perhaps most famous was the Rogers commission, which looked at the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Commission member and physicist Richard Feynman demonstrated how cold temperatures made O-rings less flexible, which probably allowed hot gases to escape and ignite the Challenger’s external fuel tank.

The Graham-Reilly commission will not have subpoena power, however, and its report will not be delivered for months, after the current political and environmental problems caused by the leaking well presumably have abated.

By talking about possible criminal charges, the administration is in essence threatening something that BP and other firms involved in the crisis must already have known was coming. Given the loss of life on the Deepwater Horizon rig, local and federal law-enforcement agencies almost certainly would look at what happened as a matter of course.

Civil lawsuits related to the disaster are already proliferating. Construction giant Halliburton has been named in 112 suits connected to Deepwater Horizon, noted James Ferguson, a Halliburton senior vice president, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oil-spill liability last week.

“As you can no doubt appreciate, there has already been an immense amount of litigation in connection with the blowout,” Mr. Ferguson told House members.

At the May 27 House hearing, Jim Hood, Mississippi attorney general, expressed worry that state claims would be shuffled aside in favor of a consolidated action in federal court. That would allow BP and other firms involved to limit their possible liabilities in the case, said Mr. Hood.

At one point in the liability hearing, Rep. Steve Cohen (D) of Tennessee asked Darryl Willis, a BP vice president, how much money BP had made last year.

Mr. Willis said he would guess the figure was about $20 billion.

“That’s not enough,” Representative Cohen said. “You all have got to work harder. That’s not going to take care of what you owe.”

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill


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