President Barack Obama’s top energy advisor said Sunday that BP will pay a “large financial penalty” for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster but refused to say if criminal negligence charges will be pursued.
With the ruptured Macondo well all but dead on the ocean floor as engineers shut the well for good, BP is shifting towards recovery operations including cleaning hundreds of miles of shoreline and restoring the economic health of the region.
Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, stressed that the British energy giant was on the hook for billions of dollars in penalties for the largest unintentional oil spill in petroleum industry history.
“BP will be held absolutely accountable,” Browner told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “There will be a large financial penalty.”
An estimated 4.9 million barrels, more than 205 million gallons, spewed from the ruptured well in the 87 days from the beginning of the disaster until the leak was finally capped on July 15, the US government has said, citing the latest official estimates by teams of federal and independent scientists.
About 800,000 barrels of that were contained and funneled into ships on the surface.
The numbers could play a crucial role in determining how much BP is fined under the Clean Water Act, which allows the US government to seek civil penalties for illegal oil discharges.
Fines under the law range from 1,100 dollars per barrel spilled to as high as 4,300 dollars per barrel spilled, if negligence is proven, meaning BP could theoretically face fines of up to 17.6 billion dollars for the 4.1 million barrels that poured into the sea.
Browner was evasive, however, about whether the Obama administration would pursue negligence charges against BP.
“I’m not going to comment on the Department of Justice investigation” into BP’s actions leading up to and during the spill, Browner said.
When pressed if the company should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law, she replied: “absolutely.”
At congressional hearings back in May, BP, Transocean and Halliburton blamed each other for the spill as executives from all three oil titans were grilled by US lawmakers.
BP says rig owner Transocean was responsible for the failure of the giant blowout preventer valve which made it impossible to regain control of the well, but Transocean said all the operations were run by BP.
The finger was also pointed at Halliburton, the oil services company which was responsible for vital cement work around the wellhead, which should have sealed the exploratory well until full production began.
The White House has already demanded that BP set up a 20-billion-dollar compensation fund for Gulf Coast residents and businesses. Browner said the fund will be launched “in the coming days.”
A top Obama critic in Congress, Republican House minority leader John Boehner, also told NBC that the government should be “going after BP” to recoup financial losses suffered along the Gulf Coast.
“I think BP has stepped forward, in terms of the money. But there is the law, and they should be held accountable.”
He, too, refused to say whether criminal negligence charges should be brought.
Boehner stressed it was vital for Obama to lift the US government’s freeze on new deepwater oil drilling imposed in the wake of the BP spill.
“We are risking 100,000 jobs on the Gulf Coast with a continuation of this moratorium,” he said.
After a court ruled against the six-month moratorium, the federal government issued a fresh ban on July 12 due to expire on November 30 to ensure oil companies implement safety measures in the wake of the disaster.
Local politicians and businesses say the moratorium spells economic disaster for the region.
Browner said the administration would be willing to lift it provided it gets answers about what exactly triggered the disaster; how to better contain such spills; and how to be better prepared for clean-up.