The United States has laws that make it illegal to harm protected wildlife. Those laws could be used to prosecute those who caused the 2010 oil spill. Perhaps the most famous of these laws is the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which provides for both criminal and civil penalties for acts that harm species listed under the act. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) also provides for civil and criminal punishment when an action takes a marine mammal. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) makes it a crime to kill migratory birds.
While there are endangered species and marine mammals in the area affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it is more likely that any criminal prosecution would use the MBTA rather than the ESA or the MMPA. This is because the MBTA is a strict liability statute in relevant part, unlike the other laws. Accordingly, the prosecution does not have to show that the defendant(s) intended to harm wildlife. The prosecution does not have to prove that the defendants knew their action(s) would lead to an oil spill to find liability. The MBTA was used to prosecute Exxon following the Exxon Valdez spill and has been used for decades to find corporations and even their employees criminally liable for the deaths of protected birds.
Date of Report: August 31, 2010
Number of Pages: 13
Order Number: R41308
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