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Gulf oil spill: Obama administration launches criminal probe of rig explosion

June 1, 2010 |  5:29 pm

Striking an increasingly aggressive tone as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico enters its second month, the Obama administration said Tuesday that it would launch a criminal probe into the origins of the rig explosion that has led to the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

“If we find evidence of illegal behavior, we will be extremely forceful in our response," Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in New Orleans after viewing damage caused by the widening spill. Holder said that he believed there was “sufficient evidence” to warrant a criminal inquiry.

Holder said Justice Department lawyers were reviewing to see whether the companies that owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon rig in the gulf, which include BP and Transocean Ltd., violated an array of federal statutes that contain criminal and civil penalties, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

“There are a wide range of possible violations under these statutes, and we will closely examine the actions of those involved with the spill,” said Holder, who did not identify the companies targeted by the inquiry by name and did not speculate about the range of criminal penalties they might face.

On Wall Street, BP’s stock, and that of other energy companies, tumbled upon news of the probe.

According to the Associated Press, BP executives in Houston said the company would cooperate with the investigation.

As Holder toured the oil-stained Louisiana Delta, President Obama at the White House pledged to bring “those responsible” for the spill to justice.

The president met with members of a commission he formed aimed at preventing a similar disaster. He appeared in the Rose Garden with the commission’s co-chairmen, former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and William K. Reilly, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under former Republican President George H.W. Bush.

Obama said he was expecting a report from them in six months.

"We have an obligation to investigate what went wrong and to determine what reforms are needed so that we never have to experience a crisis like this again," Obama said.

Obama’s remarks came as BP undertakes its latest effort to stop the oil from escaping from the seafloor into the gulf. The company will deploy a containment dome in an effort to capture the oil, a maneuver that contains its own set of risks and is not guaranteed to succeed.

The solution that offers the best prospect of halting the ceaseless flow of oil involves the digging of several relief wells, something unlikely to be completed until August.

“We need to let the investigations run their course,” BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said Tuesday in an interview on Fox News Channel, “and they’ll find what they find and we’ll deal with that when they find it.”

BP paid a $50-million fine after a fire and explosion at a Texas City, Texas, oil refinery in 2005 killed 15 workers and injured 170. Exxon Mobil Corp. paid a $125-million criminal fine for the Valdez spill in Alaska.

The Deepwater rig explosion in April killed 11 workers and has pumped an estimated 21 million to 44 million gallons of oil into the gulf. On Tuesday, oil reached the borders of Mississippi for the first time after already reaching the shores of Louisiana and Alabama.

-- James Oliphant and Peter Nicholas in Washington