BP staff may face U.S. criminal charges after spill

U.S. prosecutors are preparing what would be the first criminal charges against BP Plc (BP/) staff after the worst U.S. oil spill last year, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter.

Prosecutors are focusing on whether some BP employees, including several Houston-based engineers and at least one supervisor, provided false information to regulators about the risks linked to the drilling of the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, the Journal said. Department of Justice officials said in September that they looking to whether BP failed to properly report changes in key pressure measurement during the drilling process.

Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP in Chicago, and David Nicholas, a London-based spokesman for the company, declined to comment on the report.

The U.S. government and BP are set to start a trial on Feb. 27 that will determine liability for the April 2010 well blast that killed 11 workers and triggered the leak of millions of gallons of crude. BP has agreed to settlements with four of six companies involved and may make a similar arrangement with the U.S. Justice Department, avoiding litigation as President Barack Obama seeks re-election next year, RBC Capital Markets said.

“This increases the onus on all parties to reach a settlement,” said Peter Hutton, an analyst at RBC in London. “That would take the heat off the individuals involved. Obama would like to put this fully to bed before the election.”

New Orleans Trial

The well blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig led to hundreds of lawsuits against London-based BP. The company spent $17.7 billion last year on its response to the spill and set up a $20 billion compensation fund for victims. Most of the lawsuits have been consolidated in New Orleans under U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who will decide who was at fault before ruling on penalties in proceedings that may take years.

Any criminal charges against individuals may be brought early next year, with a conviction carrying a penalty of five years in prison, the Wall Street Journal reported. The Justice Department may still decide not to bring charges against BP’s employees, the Journal said, citing the unidentified people.

BP has yet to settle with rig-owner Transocean Ltd. or cement contractor Halliburton Co. (HAL) Cameron International Corp., the maker of the failed blowout preventer device, this week lost an appeal to derail the non-jury trial under Barbier.