Democratic members of a Senate committee examining the Deepwater Horizon oil spill said today that they want the U.S. Department of Justice to throw the book at the companies responsible. Republicans were a little more cautious.
At a hearing this morning, senators urged Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli to pursue civil liability against BP, Transocean, and any other companies that could be found at fault. They also repeatedly pushed for criminal investigations of the companies.
“We need to ensure that those harmed by this accident are fully compensated,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Senators expressed frustration with current law, which threatens to cap liability for the Gulf of Mexico spill, beyond clean-up costs, at $75 million. BP has said it will pay all “legitimate claims” associated with the spill, but that has not lessened lawmakers’ skepticism.
“Exxon said many of these same things” — after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill — “and then they litigated all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). He asked Perrelli about pursuing a written consent agreement with BP.
Perrelli tried to reassure senators, telling them that the $75 million cap might not apply in the case of the Deepwater Horizon, especially if the government has evidence of gross negligence or willful misconduct. He declined to say whether it has such evidence now. “There are many facts to be developed,” he said.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) wondered whether BP’s public commitment to pay “legitimate claims” might be used against the company in court. “Is their representation legally binding on them?” Dorgan asked.
“They’ve certainly made that commitment very publicly,” Perrelli said. “We intend — in a court of law or elsewhere — we certainly intend to have them uphold that commitment.”
At Dorgan’s request, Perrelli said the department would consider ways to make BP’s assurances legally binding. He also said it would consider ways to stop a planned $1 billion dividend payout to shareholders of drilling-rig owner Transocean, which also faces liability claims.
Two weeks ago, Transocean filed a motion in federal court seeking to cap its liability at $26.7 million. That motion drew a heated response at today’s hearing from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who accused Transocean of a “pattern of activity” to avoid blame.
“I can’t say it’s illegal at this point, but it certainly ought to be unacceptable given the crisis in the Gulf,” Wyden said.
Perrelli said the Justice Department plans to oppose Transocean’s motion.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was one of several senators to ask Perrelli whether there are any ongoing criminal investigations related to the spill. Perrelli declined to answer those questions, but Sessions urged him not to hesitate to make use of the FBI.
“If there is a possibility of a criminal investigation,” Sessions said, “the FBI should be involved in that.”
Lawmakers are considering several proposals to change the law related to oil spill liability and penalties, including possible elimination of the $75 million cap. A bill introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) would increase potential civil penalties from $20,000 a day to $75,000 a day, and it would increase potential criminal liabilities from $100,000 a day to $10 million a day.
“The current penalties are inconsequential in the face of those record industry profits,” Whitehouse said at today’s hearing.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the energy committee’s top Republican, sounded a more-cautious note against “arbitrary” changes. “We need to make the time, take the time to ensure that we’re building good policy on this,” she said.