Federal government announces 'aggressive' criminal probe of spill

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday the federal government has launched a criminal and civil investigation into the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and pledged a review that would be “meticulous” and “aggressive.” 

Holder said during a trip to the Gulf Coast to tour the affected area that the government was reviewing whether BP and federal regulators had violated federal laws in the lead-up to the April explosion of a BP-leased rig, which triggered a massive spill that has yet to be contained.

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"[A]s we have said all along, we must also ensure that anyone found responsible for this spill is held accountable," Holder said, according to his prepared remarks. "That means enforcing the appropriate civil – and if warranted, criminal – authorities to the full extent of the law."

He added: "We will make certain that those responsible clean up the mess they have made and restore or replace the natural resources lost or injured in this tragedy. And we will prosecute to the full extent any violations of the law. As our review expands in the days ahead, we will be meticulous, we will be comprehensive, and we will be aggressive. We will not rest until justice is done."

Holder delivered his remarks following a meeting with prosecutors and state attorneys general from the affected Gulf Coast states.

President Barack Obama also raised the prospect of criminal charges for BP earlier today after meeting with former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) and William Reilly, the Republican former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, co-chairmen of the commission he created to investigate the accident.

"If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region," the president said in the Rose Garden.

The president's remarks follow a Memorial Day weekend during which BP abandoned its “top kill” strategy for plugging the leak. The company is now trying a new approach involving a second containment dome, but administration officials said they are preparing for the worst — a leak that lasts into August, when two relief wells are expected to be complete.

Several Senate Democrats have urged the administration to consider criminal charges against BP. In a letter sent last month, eight members of the Environment and Public Works Committee asked Holder to probe whether BP made “false and misleading statements to the federal government regarding its ability to respond to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it does not in any way appear that there was ‘proven equipment and technology’ to respond to the spill, which could have tragic consequences for local economies and the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico,” said the letter from Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Using language similar to his attacks on Wall Street, Obama said now is the time to "take a look at how the oil and gas industry operates."

Obama authorized the commission to hold public hearings, offering access to all government information, nonprofits, experts and most notably "BP, Transocean, Halliburton and others."


Obama noted that lives were lost, businesses brought to their knees and the environment damaged in "the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history."



The president blasted a relationship between government regulators and oil officials that has been "plagued by corruption for years."



The president said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar inherited that culture of corruption and has worked to clean it up, "but this oil spill has made clear that more reforms are needed."



Obama called on Congress to consider passing tougher laws even as he promised that the responsible party would be brought to justice.

Obama said that Graham, Reilly and the other five individuals who will serve on the commission have his blessing to "follow the facts wherever they may lead without fear or favor."


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



The president said he and his administration "owe" those who have been affected by the disaster a "full and vigorous accounting of the events" that led to the explosion and subsequent leak, now more than 40 days old.



"Only then can we be assured that deepwater drilling can take place safely," Obama said.

Ben Geman contributed to this article.