June 1, 2010— -- Attorney General Eric Holder said today that the federal government has launched criminal and civil investigations into the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that is now the worst in U.S. history.
Holder declined to name the specific companies or individuals under investigation but said the criminal investigation has already been going on for "some weeks," reported ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who attended the afternoon press conference.
Just last week, the Justice Department had asked BP to preserve documents related to the spill, describing it as a "fact-finding" mission. The language about the department's mission has changed dramatically since then.
Holder, who was in New Orleans today to meet with Gulf Coast state attorneys general, said federal environmental laws give him the power to pursue investigations into a "wide range of possible violations."
Earlier today in Washington, President Obama nodded toward the possibility of criminal wrongdoing.
The president met with the two men heading up his commission on the spill, former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Bill Reilly. The commission will report its findings in six months.
In comments following the meeting, the president said their job would be "to thoroughly examine the spill and its causes" and to protect the nation from future catastrophe.
In his first public comments on possible criminal actions related to the spill, Obama said, "If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region."
Any criminal investigation into the spill will be overseen by the Environment and Natural Resources Divison, while the civil inquiry will be handled by the Department of Justice's Civil Division. The Department would also have to represent the government, including the Minerals Management Service, in any future litigation.
There was also news today that the federal government has been reaching out to a surprising source for expertise on the spill -- Hollywood director James Cameron.
The "Avatar" and "Titanic" mastermind and other scientists met today with EPA and other federal officials for a brainstorming session on ways to stop the spewing oil leak.
Cameron is considered an expert on underwater filming and remote vehicle technologies, with skills honed while filming the debris of the Titanic on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite the news of a federal probe into the spill, Louisiana leaders again expressed outrage today over the government's response to the spill.
Gov. Bobby Jindal called on the federal government to take BP to task and "hold them to the fire," while at the same time begging for faster federal action on his request to build barrier islands that could keep oil from surging into marshlands.
"You wouldn't tell a drowning person to give us time for another study," the Republican said, repeating his pleading request to start building. "We need to be rescued now. We need help now.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, a Republican, called the delay in the plans' approval a "dog and pony show" and said that the barrier island construction should have started weeks ago.
"We are losing miles of our coastline as we speak," Nungesser told ABC's George Stephanopoulos this afternoon.
Engineering experts have said constructing the barrier islands Jindal and Nungesser were talking about would take nine months or more.
BP Begins 'Cut and Cap' Strategy
Today, BP began its seventh attempt to control the oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico after its previous strategies have failed to stem the oil spill.
Underwater robots equipped with a diamond-studded saw began cutting into the drill pipe on the ocean floor this morning, part of a plan to gather oil with yet another containment dome, the third that's been tried, which would siphon the oil to the surface.
"We're not talking about capping the well anymore, we're talking about containing the well," said Adm. Thad Allen at an afternoon press conference, expressing optimism that this latest "cut and cap" strategy can collect at least some of the oil.
The Coast Guard said it could take up to three days before the containment dome is operational. Until then, oil will spew into the Gulf unobstructed, at a rate that could fill an average-size swimming pool every hour or 15 bathtubs every second.
This third attempt with a containment dome comes after previous domes iced up in the freezing 5,000-feet-deep conditions, but this time, experts and government officials hope that a tighter-fitting dome will do a better job.
"My guess is this will be more successful by a large margin than the original insertion pipe," said Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute.
BP also believes it has learned from its mistakes.
"This is our third containment system we've deployed," BP COO Doug Suttles admitted today. "We've learned a lot from that, and we've applied all the learning from those two to this system, and that's why I'm pretty confident it will work."
If it doesn't work, 20 percent more oil than is already gushing could flow into the Gulf. And even if the technique does work this time, it's still far from a perfect fix. A containment dome offers no hope of permanently plugging the well, and the technique is at the mercy of weather conditions in the Gulf.
June 1 marks the first day of hurricane season, and at this afternoon's press conference Allen acknowledged that BP and the government would have to abandon the plan if a storm comes through, leaving the well spewing into the Gulf.
Forecasters predict this hurricane season to be the most intense since 2005, when Katrina ravaged the Louisiana coast and passed directly over the site where the oil leak began 43 days ago.
A permanent fix won't come until relief wells are completed, which BP and government officials said won't happen until August.
Not All Are Confident That 'Cut and Cap' Strategy Will Work
While Obama administration officials, some petroleum experts and BP officials hope that the new "cut and cap" strategy will help contain the oil, many others have lost all faith in BP's ability to perform this surgery and note that is has never been tried at such depths before.
"This is an uncontrolled science experiment which is unprecedented one mile below the sea," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said.
The fear is that the cap will not fit, and the oil will keep flowing, triggering an environmental domino effect.
"The whole face of the coast line could be impacted," Ed Overton, professor emeritus at Louisiana State University School of Coast and Environment, said.
The Coast Guard and BP are preparing for a massive cleanup effort that could last until autumn. They will begin redeploying their army of 20,000 workers to tent cities and so-called "floatels" near vulnerable areas, so workers can be dispatched quickly to fight oil as it rolls ashore.
As BP attempts the latest fix, the Obama administration has ordered the company to continue drilling those two relief wells that are not expected to be ready for months.
BP will have to drill two miles beneath the surface of the earth and hit a target approximately the size of a dinner plate.
"They are looking at some technologies, some camera technology that they will use to locate the pipe underground, but obviously we wanted to make sure there were redundancies because we need to get this thing stopped," White House Energy Adviser Carol Browner told "Good Morning America." "We've always understood that the relief well was the way to permanently stop it."