Special Reports

Federal laws point to criminal charges in the Gulf oil spill

WASHINGTON — Federal investigators are likely to file criminal charges against at least one of the companies involved in the Gulf of Mexico spill, raising the prospects of significantly higher penalties than a current $75 million cap on civil liability, legal experts say.

The inquiry by the Homeland Security and Interior Departments into how the spill occurred is still in its early stages and authorities have not confirmed whether a criminal investigation has been launched.

But environmental law experts say it’s just a matter of time until the Justice Department steps in — if it hasn’t already — to initiate a criminal inquiry and take punitive action.

“There is no question there’ll be an enforcement action,” said David M. Uhlmann, who headed the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section for seven years during the Clinton and Bush administrations. “And, it’s very likely that there will be at least some criminal charges brought.”

Such a likelihood has broad legal implications for BP and the two other companies involved — not the least of which is the amount of money any responsible party could be required to pay. The White House is asking Congress to lift the current $75 million cap on liability under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, but there’s no cap on criminal penalties. In fact, prosecutors in such cases can seek twice the cost of environmental and economic damages resulting from the spill.

While Attorney General Eric Holder has confirmed that Justice Department lawyers are helping the agencies involved in the oil spill inquiry with legal questions, department officials have refused to detail what their role entails.

In testimony on the Hill this week, all three companies involved in the spill — BP, Halliburton, and Transocean — denied culpability for the spill and have instead blamed each other.

BP did not respond to requests for comment.

Halliburton and Transocean declined to answer questions, saying it would be “inappropriate” to comment on any possible litigation or investigations.

“At the moment, Transocean is concentrating its efforts on assisting BP and federal and state agencies on the clean-up effort,” the company said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the companies themselves have already started pointing fingers.

In testimony this week, BP pointed to questions about the blowout preventer — and made it clear that Transocean owned it.

Transocean, however, denied the blowout preventer caused the accident and hinted that the cementing and casing did not properly control the pressure.

Halliburton, the cementing sub-contractor, pointed to BP as the well owner.

Oliver Houck, a professor with Tulane University said that some of the strongest environmental criminal cases have come out of civil cases.

“The beauty part of civil trials is the competing companies,” he said. “As a prosecutor this is the most delightful scenario: All the defendants proving each others’ guilt.”