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Oil spill jail time for BP officials? It could happen.

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However, the manner in which the White House chose to make Tuesday’s announcement – a televised public statement by Attorney General Eric Holder following a meeting with state attorneys general and federal prosecutors – was something of a surprise. After all, it’s BP that’s in charge of stopping up the well that’s currently pouring oil into the open ocean. In that sense, the administration remains in a working relationship – albeit an uneasy one – with the very firm it’s threatening to prosecute.

The laws at issue here include, among others, the Clean Water Act, which mandates both civil and criminal penalties for violations; the Oil Pollution Act of 1990; and the Endangered Species Act, which penalizes those who injure or kill covered wildlife.

In terms of civil violations all these statutes have fairly strict liability standards. For the Endangered Species Act, prosecutors must prove only that a particular action sickened or killed one endangered sea turtle, say.

Given that low bar, a successful civil prosecution in this case is almost inevitable.

“It’s almost certain that [BP, Transocean, or other firms involved] will be found guilty of something,” says professor Snape, an expert in environmental law.

According to Snape, the more interesting question is whether Interior Department officials will also be prosecuted and found guilty of contributing to the BP disaster.

A number of internal reports have found egregious personal behavior and a too-cozy relationship with industry within the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS). If federal officials aided and abetted illegal acts on the part of BP, the Justice Department could pursue them, too.

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