Senator: BP criminal case is essentially proven

The criminal case against oil giant BP has essentially been proven and investigators should be determining how harshly it will be penalized, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said Tuesday. 

Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — a former U.S. Attorney who successfully prosecuted the North Cape oil spill in 1997 — said that BP "absolutely" broke the law for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. 

"It's pretty much agreed they did that. It's only a misdemeanor statute, but it provides for at least the avenue of criminal prosecution and that leads to potential criminal fines, potential criminal restitution to individual parties who are harmed," he said on CNBC. "So I think it's almost a lay-down hand as a criminal case at this point and the issue really is going to be about penalties and damages."

The first-term senator's comments come about a week after the Justice Department opened a civil and criminal probe into spill, which President Barack Obama has called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. 

Whitehouse said that the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 makes it a federal misdemeanor to deposit or discharge a pollutant into navigable waters in the United States without a permit. He said the law was applied during the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which occurred in 1989, and the North Cape spill. 

The Rhode Island senator sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which this week is considering legislation to lift the liability on companies responsible for causing oil spills. 

Cross-posted to the E-2 Wire