U.S. Justice Dept seeks oil-spill fines against BP, Transocean, Anadarko

Lawyers for the federal government are posturing to collect heavy fines from BP and other companies for playing a role in the causing 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The Justice Department argued in a hearing in New Orleans Friday that BP, Transocean, and Anadarko should be found liable ahead of February’s trial for violating U.S. pollution laws.

Holding BP in violation of the Clean Water Act and Transocean and Anadarko in violation of the Oil Spill Act, another set of environmental-protection laws for which BP has already accepted responsibility, would mean the companies couldn’t dispute allegations that they violated the environmental laws at the trial, which opens on February 27 and will seek to determine how much each company is to blame for the disaster.

“They have admitted they are owners. They have admitted they discharged oil into the Gulf of Mexico,” one U.S. Justice Department attorney told U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier. “Each should be punished according to his own culpability.”

Judge Barbier then asked if the intention was to penalize one company $1,100 per barrel of oil spill while levying higher per-barrel fines against the others, to which the U.S. attorneys said yes. Barbier called the arguments “interesting” and said he would take them under advisement.

According to Businessweek, “Even if Barbier does rule for the U.S. on its bid for a pretrial decision, the question of gross negligence, which will determine whether the companies are subject to enhanced fines under the Clean Water Act, will be considered at trial.”

Should the court determine a company’s gross negligence contributed to the spill, fines could be assessed as high as $4,300 per barrel. The blown-out Macondo well released about 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, according to U.S. estimates.

Denying the motion would mean that Barbier would determine which companies can be held liable and subject to fines at the trial. BP leased the Deepwater Horizon platform from Transocean, while Anadarko had 25 percent ownership in the Macondo well.