The Justice Department sued BP and several other companies involved in the Gulf oil spill Wednesday, an opening salvo in the government’s effort to get billions of dollars for untold economic and environmental damage.
The government accuses the companies of disregarding federal safety regulations in drilling the well that blew out April 20 and triggered a deadly explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
The lawsuit makes it possible for the federal government to seek billions of dollars in penalties for polluting the Gulf of Mexico, beaches and wetlands, and reimbursement for its cleanup costs. More than 300 lawsuits filed previously by individuals and businesses, and now consolidated in the New Orleans federal court, include claims for financial losses and compensation for the families of 11 workers killed in the blast.
“The Justice Department has left its options open to argue that there was gross negligence and therefore should be higher penalties,” said David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan who headed up the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section for seven years. “The government has not limited itself in any way with the filing of its civil lawsuit.”
The suit asks that the companies be held liable without limitation under the Oil Pollution Act for all removal costs and damages caused by the spill, including damages to natural resources. The lawsuit also seeks civil penalties under the Clean Water Act.
The government did not set a dollar figure in the lawsuit, saying the amount of damages and the extent of injuries sustained by the United States are not yet fully known.
Under the Clean Water Act alone, BP faces fines of up to $1,100 for each barrel of oil spilled. If BP were found to have committed gross negligence or willful misconduct, the fine could be up to $4,300 per barrel.
That means that based on the government’s estimate of 206 million gallons released by the well, BP could face civil fines of between $5.4 billion and $21.1 billion. BP disputes the government’s spill estimate.
The government did not specify in its lawsuit whether it believes there was gross negligence, but it left open the possibility for such a finding later.
Anadarko said ultimate responsibility may rest solely with the operator of the well — BP.
“As a non-operating minority interest holder in the well, we were not involved in the operations or decisions that occurred on the drilling rig,” Anadarko said in a statement. “We recognize that we may have obligations under federal law, and we will continue to look to the operator to pay all legitimate claims as it has committed to do.”
The commission looking into the spill has said the disaster resulted from questionable decisions and management failures by BP, Transocean and Halliburton Energy Services Inc. The panel found 11 decisions made by these companies increased risk. Most saved time, and all but one had a safer alternative.
Schaeffer said he doubts the government will let Halliburton completely off the hook. “If they think Halliburton is maybe less culpable, they may be able to reach a settlement quicker. That could help them build their case against the rest of the companies.”
The government’s lawsuit alleges that safety and operating regulations were violated in the period leading up to the explosion. It says the defendants failed to keep the well under control and failed to use the best available and safest drilling technology to monitor the well’s conditions. They also failed to maintain continuous surveillance, and to maintain the equipment and material necessary to protect workers, natural resources and the environment, the suit charges.
The Justice Department isn’t the first government entity to sue BP. Alabama Attorney General Troy King filed federal lawsuits in August on behalf of the state against BP, Transocean, Halliburton and other companies that worked on the project.