The Justice Department on Wednesday sued BP Exploration and Production Inc. and eight other companies in the Gulf oil spill disaster in an effort to recover billions of dollars from the largest offshore spill in U.S. history.
"We intend to hold them fully accountable," Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters after the lawsuit was filed.
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The Obama administration's lawsuit asks that the companies be held liable without limitation under the Oil Pollution Act for all removal costs and damages caused by the oil spill, including damages to natural resources. The lawsuit also seeks civil penalties under the Clean Water Act.
"We intend to prove these violations caused or contributed to the massive oil spill," Holder said.
The federal lawsuit says inadequate cementing of the well contributed to the disaster. Similar charges were made by BP in its internal investigation, and by the independent presidential oil spill commission. But Halliburton Co., the contractor in charge of mixing and pumping the cement, is not named in the suit.
Holder said it is conceivable that additional defendants could be added to the lawsuit. "This is an ongoing process," the attorney general said.
The amount of damages and the extent of injuries sustained by the United States as a result of the Deepwater Horizon Spill are not yet fully known, the lawsuit states.
CBS News chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford reports if BP and the other companies are found liable they could face penalties ranging from $5.4 billion to if there is extreme negligence upwards of $21 billion.
"This is about getting a fair deal for the region that suffered enormous consequences for this disaster," Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson told reporters.
An explosion that killed 11 workers at BP's Macondo well last April led to oil spewing from the company's undersea well - more than 200 million gallons in all by the government's estimate. BP disputes the figure.
The department filed the suit in federal court in New Orleans.
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While Wednesday's lawsuit seeks civil penalties from the defendants, Holder said the government's civil and criminal investigations remain ongoing.
"The civil matter may not be complete," said Holder. "There may be additional things that we may add."
Crawford reports many legal experts think those are likely so the government can send a message that the conduct was so reprehensible it is criminal. That could mean even more fines and possible jail time for executives if they knew there was a high risk the rig could fail and they deliberately ignored it.
The other defendants in the case are Anadarko Exploration & Production LP and Anadarko Petroleum Corp.; MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC; Triton Asset Leasing GMBH; Transocean Holdings LLC and Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc. and Transocean Deepwater Inc.; and Transocean's insurer, QBE Underwriting Ltd./Lloyd's Syndicate 1036.
Anadarko and MOEX are minority owners of the well that blew out. Transocean owned the rig that BP was leasing.
Transocean disputed the allegations, insisting it should not be held liable for the actions of others. "No drilling contractor has ever been held liable for discharges from a well under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990," the company said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. "The responsibility for hydrocarbons discharged from a well lies solely with its owner and operator."
QBE/Lloyd's can be held liable only up to the amount of insurance policy coverage under the Oil Pollution Act and is not being sued under the Clean Water Act.
The lawsuit alleges that safety and operating regulations were violated in the period leading up to April 20.
It says that the defendants failed to keep the Macondo well under control during that period 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 failed to maintain equipment and material that were available and necessary to ensure the safety and protection of personnel, equipment, natural resources and the environment, the suit charges.
Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., a member of the House energy panel that is investigating the spill, acknowledged the government will have a tough fight on its hands since BP has already taken an aggressive stance regarding its liability.
"It may have taken these companies months to cap their well, but they will spend years trying to cap their financial obligations to the people of the Gulf," Markey said. "That is why it is vital for the Obama administration to swiftly advance this legal action."
Under current law, any civil damages the lawsuit recovers would go into the government's Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, Jackson said. President Obama has called on Congress to change the law to direct the money into Gulf restoration efforts, Jackson said.
Before Wednesday, potential class-action lawsuits had been filed in the Gulf oil spill by fishing and seafood interests, the tourism industry, restaurants and clubs, property owners losing vacation renters - even vacationers who claim the spill forced them to cancel and lose a deposit. So far, more than 300 suits have been spawned by the spill and consolidated in federal court in New Orleans.
Wednesday's move by the Justice Department follows the Obama administration's decision not to open new areas of the eastern Gulf and Atlantic seaboard to drilling. That marked a reversal from an earlier decision to hunt for oil and gas, an announcement the president himself made last spring three weeks before the spill.
The staff of a presidentially appointed commission looking into the spill has said that the disaster resulted from questionable decisions and management failures by three companies: BP, the well owner and operator; Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig; and Halliburton.
The panel found 11 decisions made by these companies increased risk. Most saved time, and all but one had a safer alternative.
Separately, an administrator is doling out money to Gulf oil spill victims from a $20 billion fund of BP money.
BP released a statement regarding the lawsuit. It reads, "As expected, the federal government today filed a civil suit against statutorily defined 'responsible parties' under the Oil Pollution Act in order to preserve its procedural rights under the court's case management orders to seek civil remedies resulting from the Deepwater Horizon accident.
"The filing is solely a statement of the government's allegations and does not in any manner constitute any finding of liability or any judicial finding that the allegations have merit. BP will answer the government's allegations in a timely manner and will continue to cooperate with all government investigations and inquiries.
"Alone among the parties, BP has stepped up to pay for the clean-up of the oil, setting aside $20 billion to pay all legitimate claims. We took these steps before any legal determination of responsibility and will continue to fulfill our commitments in the Gulf as the legal process unfolds."
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, rig owner Transocean, cement contractor Halliburton Energy Services Inc. and other companies that worked on the ill-fated drilling project.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is presiding over most of the consolidated federal suits. In September, Louisiana Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell's office asked Barbier to create a "government case track" to handle government-related suits separately from other claims. The judge hasn't ruled on that request yet.
Other companies that were not targeted by the Justice Department lawsuit could be added later if the department decides that the evidence warrants it.
Among the other companies whose names have emerged in the aftermath of the spill are Halliburton, which handled the cementing of the well; and Cameron International, which made the blowout preventer that apparently failed to stop the gusher after the rig exploded last April 20.