If this were merely an innocuous case of the government and industry passing the buck back and forth, we would be more than happy to let the big-dollar lawyers just hammer away at each other in civil actions over the gulf oil spill.
But with each new allegation of cozy dealings between the Minerals Management Service and BP, momentum grows for the Justice Department to pursue a criminal probe into circumstances that led to this disaster.
The New York Times reported Friday that regulators allowed BP and other companies to drill in the gulf without obtaining the required permits concerning endangered species and waived environmental impact statements despite the protests of staff biologists and engineers.
BP had claimed in its drilling plan that the odds of an oil spill were slight and that drilling would not have an adverse impact on endangered species.
This departure from standard procedure raises questions about the possibility of preferential treatment and what might have caused regulators to short-circuit their approval process. Moreover, the BP claim of a minimal threat to the environment now strikes some as a misleading assessment that regulators either accepted blindly or knew to be false and failed to challenge.
More troubling evidence has emerged in recent days. For example, a worker on the rig told “60 Minutes” that drillers were under pressure to work faster, which may have caused a mishap with “mud,” a drilling fluid pumped down the well to control oil and gas. Likewise, cement work, loose pipes and a dead battery on the rig have been questioned.
All these charges are only that — charges — and must be sorted out. Late Monday, word spread that President Barack Obama will establish an independent commission to investigate. This may be a good first step, but it’s critical that whatever form the probe takes, accountability and consequences are the end result.
Criminal probes resulting from energy-related accidents and regulatory failures aren’t unprecedented. BP, for example, agreed to pay millions in criminal penalties for several major incidents, including a Texas City refinery explosion in 2005. The FBI reportedly has launched a criminal investigation into the recent Massey Energy mine explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners.
Under federal laws, the Deepwater Horizon spill could result in misdemeanor negligence charges. If regulators looked the other way — or if BP and others took risky shortcuts that contributed to the magnitude of the spill — charges could be even more serious. The key, legal experts say, is whether companies and regulators knowingly violated rules.
A criminal probe is an important next step in finding the truth because many questions are not likely to be fully answered until regulators and drilling executives are hauled into court — with more than civil penalties at stake.
Americans deserve a full and appropriate accountability of those involved.