Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., told The Associated Press that members of his staff got information about the talks while working on oil spill-related legislation he is proposing. Scalise said the goal of the talks between BP PLC and the government is to reach a deal instead of having to fight it out in court.
He said the two sides appear to be at odds over whether BP should be considered grossly negligent for the spill, a finding that could mean higher fines. There was no immediate comment from BP or the Justice Department.
Scalise made the comments after a news conference with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who was in New Orleans to release a report that recommends paying for Gulf restoration with some of the possible water pollution fines for companies involved in the spill. He said it would be up to Congress to determine how much of the fines to set aside. President Barack Obama has endorsed the proposal and will ask Congress to dedicate the money.
An April 20 rig explosion in the Gulf killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil spewing from BP's undersea well.
Penalties can be levied against BP, which owned the well and was leasing the rig that exploded, under a variety of environmental protection laws, including fines of up to $1,100 under the Clean Water Act 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 4.9 million barrels released from the Macondo well, BP could face civil fines under the Clean Water Act alone of between $5.4 billion and $21.1 billion.
Dedicating fines levied against BP and other companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon accident to restoration and directly to Gulf states, which the Mabus report also calls for, will require a change in law. Currently, Clean Water Act fines go into a trust fund to pay for oil spill cleanups.
Scalise and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., support legislation that would require that at least 80 percent of the civil and criminal penalties charged to BP under the Clean Water Act be returned to the Gulf Coast for long-term economic and environmental recovery. The bill is still pending.
Richard Stewart, who led the government's prosecution of Exxon for the Exxon Valdez incident, told the national oil spill commission Tuesday that criminal charges and stiff civil penalties will likely drive BP to settle. Stewart now teaches law at New York University.
"It's a negotiation," Scalise said. "If they can't reach an agreement then it would go to court. We would be able to get that money to the Gulf coast quicker if they would agree to it."
In New Orleans, Mabus said that under his plan, the money would not have to be spent solely on repairing damage caused by the oil spill. Rather, he said, he envisions some of it being spent on repairing wetlands damaged over the years by the construction of canals to serve coastal oilfields.
Mabus said that with the equipment and manpower already in the Gulf repairing damage from the oil spill, it would be cheaper and more efficient to also repair the coastline from other damage it has suffered over the years.
Mabus is proposing that a panel be set up to administer any money set aside from the fines for coastal restoration. He said there should be a federal and state chair on the panel.
Even before Mabus announced his plan for the restoration fund, state and local officials were saying how it should be spent and managed.
"My view is that it should be specific to the injury and the subject that we are dealing with," Landrieu said during testimony before the oil spill commission Obama set up to investigate the accident. She named coastal restoration, ocean education, energy infrastructure and levee protection as possible projects.
Landrieu said the money should be used not just for "restoring what we had, but building what we need," something that she said had bipartisan support.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, joined Landrieu before the panel Tuesday. He said that "anything that resulted from this oil spill should be the first priority" for the money.
He also was clear that he didn't want bureaucrats in Washington deciding how it was spent.
"Washington, D.C. is not going to tell the Mississippi Gulf Coast how to rebuild the Mississippi Gulf Coast," Barbour said. Obama has said repeatedly Gulf Coast residents should decide, and Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, has traveled throughout the region to gather information from local officials.
Obama is expected to sign an executive order soon to carry out another of the report's recommendations, setting up a Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, which would coordinate the money and help decide which project are funded until Congress sets up a council. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, a New Orleans native, will lead it.