What Can Criminal Probe Into Oil Spill Accomplish?

The Obama administration vows to "prosecute to the fullest extent of the law"

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The White House and Department of Justice have announced civil and criminal probes into the oil spill that has been devastating the Gulf of Mexico for over a month. The move comes as BP's efforts to stop the leak continue to fail and as the Obama administration struggles for a way to take charge of the steadily worsening situation. Officials have announced they are abandoning plans to plug the leak, instead siphoning off as much oil as possible until relief wells can be completed, likely not until August. In the meantime, what can this probe accomplish?

  • Who Could Be Charged and With What The New York Times' Helene Cooper and Peter Baker explain, "Administration officials said they were reviewing violations of the Clean Water Act, which carries criminal and civil penalties and fines; the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which can be used to hold parties responsible for cleanup costs; the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, which provide penalties for injury and death of wildlife." They add that it's not clear whether charges would be brought against BP, drill leaser Transocean, or Halliburton, which provided some contracting work.
  • Political Damage Control for Obama The Wall Street Journal's Thomas Catan and Guy Chazan call this "the latest move by the Obama administration to show it is taking aggressive action amid bipartisan criticism of its response to the disaster. ... Mr. Holder's Tuesday statement is the latest move by the Obama administration to challenge BP, even as it relies on the oil giant for the technology to stop the spill. The White House has come under fire from Democrats and Republicans for its response to the disaster, and for relying too heavily on BP to control information about the spill and the technology to fight it."
  • Distract From Cleanup or Improve It? The Wall Street Journal reports, "[Attorney General Eric] Holder said that he believes parties that might be probed such as BP, however, have an incentive to redouble their cleanup efforts since they would likely want to 'mitigate whatever damages they have caused.'" But liberal blogger Jeralyn suspects otherwise: "Since the Government doesn't have the ability and expertise to remedy the crisis on its own, it doesn't seem like a good time to be alienating those who might be able to provide a solution by threatening prosecution. Can't that wait?"
  • Curb Future Offshore Drilling The Washington Post's Michael Shear says Obama "hinted that future support for new oil drilling in the deep waters off the nation's coast would be contingent on what the commission finds. He said decisions about any expansion of drilling -- which he had announced just weeks before the spill -- would wait until the group finishes."
  • It's Already Hurting BP The New York Times' Jad Mouawad and John Schwartz report, "BP shareholders are fleeing the company's stock amid growing uncertainty about the ultimate bill for cleanup costs, lawsuits, fines and damage to the oil giant's reputation. BP's shares fell an additional 15 percent on Tuesday ... Since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, the company has lost a third of its market value, or about $75 billion."
  • What If It Turns Up Nothing? The Awl's Choire Sicha writes, "Maybe, just maybe, the just-announced investigation by the US Attorney General into the companies involved with the Gulf Oil Disaster will actually reveal something illegal and they can be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." However, "despite the oily consequences, it's perfectly likely that everything was perfectly legal."
  • How Republicans Could Respond Liberal blogger John Cole projects, "And now, in the next 24 hours, we watch all the Republicans and their talking heads in the media suddenly shift gears from 'Why is Obama not doing enough to hold BP accountable' to 'Why is Obama attacking big businesses and destroying our economy.' And they'll do it without missing a beat."
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