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Obama Launches BP Oil-Spill Lawsuit

Stocks in this article: BP APC HAL RIG

"This is just an initial filing and, I think, a formality that happens to be a public event. It will be a long process," RFF's Richardson said.

While Anadarko and Transocean have pointed the accusatory finger at BP all along, it's not a surprise that the government would pursue charges against multiple companies. Street analysts have maintained all along that Anadarko would ultimately have to pay some share of oil spill liabilities as 25% owner of the Macondo well.

The Justice Department request for a waiver of the liability cap can be made on two grounds: gross negligence of one or multiple parties in the oil spill, and/or proof of a regulatory violation on the rig that was linked to the oil spill. The government does not need to prove gross negligence, but only a regulatory violation, for the cap to be waived, RFF's Richardson said. "We've certainly seen enough to indicate that a regulatory violation claim or gross negligence claim is plausible, and it doesn't have to be BP that's alone negligent," the environmental lawyer said.

In the complaint, the Obama administration alleges violations of federal safety and operational regulations, including:

Failure to take necessary precautions to secure the Macondo Well prior to the April 20th explosion;

Failure to utilize the safest drilling technology to monitor the well's condition;

Failure to maintain continuous surveillance of the well; and

Failure to utilize and maintain equipment and materials that were available and necessary to ensure the safety and protection of personnel, property, natural resources, and the environment.

The Justice Department said in announcing the suit, "We intend to prove that these violations caused or contributed to this massive oil spill, and that the defendants are therefore responsible - under the Oil Pollution Act - for government removal costs, economic losses, and environmental damages."

While BP has said it won't defend itself against the liability cap being waived, the Justice Department suit could be the beginning of the tangential legal battle between BP and its partners on the well over ultimate divvying up of the oil spill price tag.

Phil Weiss, analyst at Argus Research, said it was notable that Halliburton (HAL) was not among the companies named in the suit, though it might be a matter of Oil Pollution Act law, or Halliburton could still be added to the civil suit at a later date based on the Justice Department's continuing investigation.

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