The Department of Justice (DOJ) Wednesday filed a civil lawsuit against BP Exploration and Production Inc. and several other energy-related companies for their part in the fatal explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig last April, which turned out to be one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. The lawsuit could be the beginning of what may be a protracted legal battle over the oil spill.

In June Attorney General Eric Holder said the government launched criminal and civil probes into the mammoth oil spill, which began after the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig. The rig had been leased by BP plc from Transocean Ltd. for work on the Macondo well (see Daily GPI, June 3; April 26).

“This incident claimed the lives of 11 rig workers,” Holder said Wednesday. “It marked the start of a massive oil spill that would take more than three months to contain. And it set off a chain reaction of devastating consequences for the people, the environment and the economy of the Gulf Coast — a region still struggling to recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana, asks the court to declare the energy defendants “jointly and severally liable” for all removal costs and damages beyond the $75 million cap under the U.S. Oil Pollution Act (OPA), with the exception of Transocean’s insurers, QBE Underwriting Ltd./Lloyd’s Syndicate.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are BP Exploration and Production; Anadarko Exploration and Production LP and Anadarko Petroleum Corp.; Mitsui & Co. Ltd. subsidiary MOEX Offshore; Swiss-based Triton Asset Leasing GMBH; Transocean Holdings LLC, Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc., Transocean Deepwater Inc.; and Transocean’s insurers. They are being charged with violating the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), except for Transocean’s insurers.

In the complaint, the United States alleges that the defendants violated federal safety and operational regulations, including:

“Each defendant [other than Lloyd’s and QBE] caused and/or contributed to the Deepwater Horizon spill by failing to assure well control of the Macondo well,” which ultimately blew and caused the explosion, the DOJ complaint alleged.

QBE/Lloyd’s can be held liable only up to the amount of insurance policy coverage under the OPA and is not being sued under the CWA, according to DOJ.

“Investigation of other potential claims, ongoing administrative proceedings, assessment of damage amounts and additional removal actions continue. Therefore the United States reserves its rights in full to amend this complaint by, among other things, adding new claims and new defendants,” the complaint said. In addition to its civil investigation, DOJ also is carrying out a criminal investigation.

The lawsuit will become part of the multi-district litigation now pending before Judge Carl J. Barbier in the same court.

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