As evidence of negligence in the BP oil spill continues to accumulate, legal experts are suggesting that criminal charges may be next on the horizon.
“There is no question there’ll be an enforcement action,” a former head of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section told the McClatchy Newspapers. “And, it’s very likely that there will be at least some criminal charges brought.”
MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann cited a list of problems with BP’s failed blowout preventer on Wednesday and also noted that a whistleblower has told the Huffington Post that while working on oil rigs in Alaska, “he observed cheating on blowout preventer tests at least 100 times, including on many wells owned by BP.”
Olbermann then turned to columnist David Corn, who pointed out that “the regulations that cover these rigs were written back in 1978. … Back in those days … they didn’t have this type of deepwater offshore drilling. … So you’ve got decades of oil companies moving further and further out, drilling deeper and deeper down, and no one in the government saying, ‘Hey! … It may not be applicable when we get too far out and too far down.’”
“And the oil companies,” Corn added, “and Halliburton and the manufacturers were not thinking, too, about how to make their rigs and their products safe for such use. … I think it was Congressman Markey who said, ‘They were conducting just one big science experiment — and guess what. It went bad.’”
“There was no culture in the Department of Interior and the Mineral Management Service to take into account what was going on and how to regulate this,” Corn explained. “Industry got to self-certify that the things they called blowout preventers would actually prevent blowouts — even if they didn’t.”
“Are the companies … in deep sheep dip?” Olbermann asked.
Olbermann appeared to be using an uncommon euphemism for “shit,” found in such sources as The Poop Thesaurus.
“I think BP is still pretty deep in it,” Corn replied. “They’ve gone on record as saying they’re going to cover all the costs. … BP could still be on the hook at the end of the day and conceivably might not survive.”
“Halliburton seems to always survive,” Corn added, commenting wryly, “I don’t know why that is.” Halliburton, of course, is the company formally run by former Vice President Dick Cheney.
McClatchy points out, however, that the issue of criminal liability may prove to be pivotal, because there is a “$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.”
Even a purely accidental spill could lead to misdemeanor negligence charges under migratory bird regulations, which would trigger the higher penalties. If if could be proven that the companies “knowingly” concealed the risks, however, that could be charged as a felony.
“To get into criminal land, you would have to prove that they knew that the short cuts they were taking brought a high probability of serious risk,” environmental law professor Oliver Houck told McClatchy “I don’t think the government has that yet. That’s what grand juries are for.”
This video is from MSNBC’s Countdown, broadcast May 12, 2010.