US launches criminal and civil inquiry into BP spill

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The attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, says the federal government has opened a criminal and civil investigation into the BP oil spill, dramatically increasing the pressure on the London-based energy giant. He made the remarks after meeting the attorneys general of affected states in the region.

Only hours before, President Barack Obama appeared in the White House Rose Garden alongside the two heads of his newly created independent investigative commission to serve notice that should evidence surface that laws have been broken in relation to the disaster in the Gulf, "we will bring those responsible to justice".

Speaking in New Orleans, Mr Holder would not identify individuals or companies that might be the targets of a criminal inquiry. But he said the FBI was among agencies involved. "We have begun both a criminal as well as a civil investigation as is our obligation under the law," Mr Holder said. "If we find evidence of illegal behaviour, we will be forceful in our response."

The sudden switch of focus to possible criminal charges was further evidence of the Obama White House rushing to put distance between itself and BP. As part of the same effort, the White House ended joint press conferences by top officials with company executives in Louisiana. Instead Admiral Thad Allen, of the US Coast Guard, will now give a daily update on progress in the Gulf without BP participation.

Carol Browner, the top energy adviser to Mr Obama, said that she was not banking on BP being successful with its next sea-bed gambit expected later this week involving the slicing away of the broken riser pipe and the placement of a new containment dome.

"Everyone, I think, is hoping for the best, but we continue to plan for the worst," she said. That means waiting until August when two relief wells should be completed.

It is thought that as much as 19,000 barrels of oil are now spewing from the ruptured well daily. There were fresh warnings last night that south-westerly breezes in the Gulf threaten to bring heavy parts of the slick to the shores of Mississippi and Alabama by the week's end.

The panel created by Mr Obama to investigate the leak is being led by former Senator Bob Graham and the ex-head of the Environmental Protection Agency, William Reilly.

"They have my full support to follow the facts wherever they lead, without fear or favour," Mr Obama said, adopting an unusually assertive tone. "If the laws on our books are insufficient to prevent such a spill, the laws must change. If oversight was inadequate to enforce these laws, oversight has to be reformed," he insisted and then added: "If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice."

A spokesman for BP said: "BP will cooperate with any inquiry that the Department of Justice undertakes, just as we are doing in response to the other inquiries that already are on-going."