Government sues BP, eight other companies over Gulf oil spill

BP and the other companies involved in the Gulf oil spill could face billions of dollars in fines under a new civil lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice Wednesday.

The lawsuit alleges that nine defendants, including BP, violated a number of safety and operational regulations. The suit seeks civil penalties under the law and it asks that the defendants be held liable without limitation for the damages resulting from the spill.

Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderHolder: 2018 vote crucial to combating gerrymandering Holder: Sessions needs to 'have the guts' to say no to Trump Holder urges Justice Dept, FBI officials to 'be strong' in face of attacks: 'It will get worse' MORE said the lawsuit represents the “initial results” of the department’s investigation into the cause of the April Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill.

The federal government, Holder said, “intends to hold them fully accountable for the their violations of the law.” Holder stressed that DoJ’s civil and criminal investigations are ongoing. Asked when DOJ will release more details on the criminal investigation, Holder said, “We are moving as quickly as we can.”

The government will be joining so-called “multidistrict litigation” based in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana, where dozens of oil-spill related lawsuits have been filed.

The lawsuit could result in massive penalties for the defendants. If the government is able to prove gross negligence or willful misconduct, the defendants can be charged as much as $4,300 for each barrel that was spilled into the Gulf under the Clean Water Act. Current estimates put the total amount of oil spilled at 4.9 million barrels, meaning the companies could be facing more than $20 billion in penalties. 

In a move that is being interpreted as an effort to prepare for litigation, BP has already begun to raise questions about the accuracy of the spill estimates.

The Oil Pollution Act puts a $75 million liability cap on damages from a spill. BP has said it will pay all damages, even if they exceed the cap. But if the government is able to prove gross negligence, willful misconduct or that the defendants broke a federal environmental regulation, that cap is waived anyway. DoJ is not yet seeking damages as part of the civil suit. It is first attempting to show that the defendants are liable for the spill.

The defendants named in the lawsuit include BP, Transocean and Anadarko, among others. Halliburton, the company responsible for the cementing of the Macondo well, is notably not included in the lawsuit, though Holder said the department has reserved the right to add more defendants.

BP, in a statement issued Wednesday, said "The filing is solely a statement of the government’s allegations and does not in any manner constitute any finding of liability or any judicial finding that the allegations have merit. BP will answer the government’s allegations in a timely manner and will continue to cooperate with all government investigations and inquiries."

This story was updated at 4:28 p.m. and 5:49 p.m.