US Attorney General Eric Holder announced the criminal probe, though he would not specify the companies or individuals that might be targeted.
“We will closely examine the actions of those involved in the spill. If we find evidence of illegal behaviour, we will be extremely forceful in our response,” Holder said in New Orleans.
BP lost billions in market value yesterday when shares dropped in the first trading day since the company failed yet again to plug the gusher.
The company said yesterday it was hopeful it could contain the spill from its leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico within the next 24 hours as US President Barack Obama said the government was ready to step up its response and prosecute if any laws were broken.
With the ambitious “top kill” abandoned over the weekend, BP’s hope to stanch the leak lies with two relief wells that won’t be finished until at least August.
The company is, however, trying another risky temporary fix to contain the oil and siphon it to the surface The latest attempt is an operation using undersea robots to cut off the fractured pipe and seal it with a cap.
After several failed attempts to divert or block the well, BP’s latest attempt involves cutting the broken riser pipe, making it spew as much as 20% more oil into the water for days while engineers try to position a cap over the opening.
Eric Smith, an associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, said the strategy had about a 50% to 70% chance to succeed. He likened it to trying to place a tiny cap on a fire hydrant.
“Will they have enough weight to overcome the force of the flow?” he said. “It could create a lot of turbulence, but I do think they’ll have enough weight.”
BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles said there was no guarantee the cut-and-cap effort would work. He did say the company has learned from past efforts to contain the leak, which gives them a better shot at success.
“I’m very hopeful,” he said.
“I think we’ll find out over the next couple of days.”
The cleanup, relief wells and temporary fixes were being watched closely by Obama’s administration.
Obama gave the leaders of an independent commission investigating the spill orders to thoroughly examine the disaster and its causes.
Obama said if laws are insufficient, they would be changed.
He said if government oversight wasn’t tough enough, that will change, too. Speaking in the Rose Garden after meeting with the co-chairmen of the commission, Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and US senator, and William K Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Obama said: “They have my full support to follow the facts wherever they lead, without fear or favour.”
Obama directed the co-chairs to report back in six months “with options for how we can prevent and mitigate the impact of any future spills that result from offshore drilling”.
BP said it had spent $990 million (€808.5m) on fighting and cleaning the spill, with multiple lawsuits for damages yet to be tallied.