From the Wonk Room.
This afternoon, Attorney General Eric Holder announced "that the federal government has launched criminal and civil investigations into the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that is now the worst in U.S. history," even as BP runs the disaster response. The Department of Justice investigation comes on top of the Minerals Management Service-Coast Guard investigation, the work of the independent Presidential commission, and several oversight investigations by Congress. Saying the criminal investigation had begun weeks ago, Holder told reporters that the federal government "will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law anyone who has violated the law":
As we move forward we will be guided by some relatively simple principles. We will ensue that every cent, every cent of taxpayer money will be repaid and that damages to the environment and wildlife will be reimbursed. We will make certain that those responsible clean up the mess that they have made... And we will prosecute, to the fullest extent of the law, anyone who has violated the law.
A significant component of the investigation will involve the scope of the environmental damage caused by the unfolding disaster in the Gulf, using the relevant provisions of the the Clean Water Act, the Oil Solution Act and the Migratory Bird and Endangered Species Act.
This ongoing investigation will take place even as BP continues to exercise control over nearly every aspect of the disaster response. In addition to the efforts to stop the leaks, BP manages claims processing, thousands of environmental contractors on land and sea, volunteer assistance, phone lines, access to the disaster site, and data collection. Everyone from Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs to National Incident Commander Thad Allen have expressed that BP and its management are essential to the clean up. Holder told reporters he agrees, and believes that his criminal investigation won't come into conflict with keeping BP involved in the crime scene:
It is in BP's interest to keep doing what they're doing, in fact even doubling [the effort].
As President Obama noted last week, there are many ways in which BP's interests are not aligned with the public interest. If BP attempts to limit its liability by mitigating the environmental damage, it is serving the public interest. However, there are any number of ways that BP can serve its shareholder responsibilities and protect its management that do not serve the public, from limiting media access to the carnage it has wreaked on the people and environs of the Gulf Coast to the possible manipulation and destruction of physical evidence. The disaster response has been repeatedly tainted by the possibility that BP has been attempting to limit the visible damage to greater expense -- has that affected the decision-making on dispersants? On the sinking of the rig?
With its practical authority over all of the people of the Coast now reliant on BP to provide information and employment, the company can directly and indirectly intimidate witnesses, workers, and victims, hide damage, and stall outside investigators. BP's executives are also safe in expecting that their positions are secure so long as BP is considered irreplaceable by the federal government, a reputation they have taken pains to build throughout this catastrophe.
It's in BP's interest to limit the physical damage caused by its negligence, but it's also in BP's interest to limit the political damage -- as demonstrated by the hiring of Cheney spokeswoman Anne Womack-Kolton, not exactly a friend of accountability for the energy industry's crimes against the planet and the American people.