Oil Spill Update: Case Against BP
As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s blown-out well, the federal government has launched an investigation to find out who’s responsible for the disaster. “If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be extremely forceful in our response," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in New Orleans on June 1 after viewing damage caused by the widening spill. Holder said that he believed there was “sufficient evidence” to warrant a criminal inquiry.
“The case against BP is a slam dunk,” David Uhlmann, former chief of the environmental crimes section of the Justice Department and a law professor at the University of Michigan, told NPR today. The government will likely charge the company—and perhaps even some individuals—with violating the Clean Water Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and perhaps other laws. “There isn’t any question that [the federal government is] going to bring criminal charges against BP. The questions are not so much about whether they have a strong case, but rather just how serious will the charges be, just how many companies will be involved, and whether individuals will be charged.”
|Strict liability provisions like those included in the Refuse Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act mean that BP and Transocean would be liable for any violation, regardless of whether it occurred accidentally or as a result of intentional misconduct. For a Clean Water Act violation, 33 U.S.C. § 1319(c)(1), the government would only have to show negligence, which is a fairly low threshold for criminal liability.
Whether prosecutors pursue a case against a company in this situation would usually depend on how cooperative it was in clean-up efforts and complying with requests for information because there are no real defenses to charges under these provisions. Given the pressure on the Obama administration over its response to the oil spill, however, criminal charges are much more likely than in other cases.