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“It may have taken these companies months to cap their well, but they will spend years trying to cap their financial obligations to the people of the Gulf,” Mr. Markey said. “That is why it is vital for the Obama administration to swiftly advance this legal action.”

Before Wednesday, potential class-action lawsuits had been filed in the Gulf oil spill by fishing and seafood interests, the tourism industry, restaurants and clubs, property owners losing vacation renters — even vacationers who claim the spill forced them to cancel and lose a deposit. So far, more than 300 suits have been spawned by the spill and consolidated in federal court in New Orleans.

Wednesday’s move by the Justice Department follows the Obama administration’s decision not to open new areas of the eastern Gulf and Atlantic seaboard to drilling. That marked a reversal from an earlier decision to hunt for oil and gas, an announcement the president himself made last spring three weeks before the spill.

The staff of a presidentially appointed commission looking into the spill has said that the disaster resulted from questionable decisions and management failures by three companies: BP, the well owner and operator; Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig; and Halliburton.

The panel found 11 decisions made by these companies increased risk. Most saved time, and all but one had a safer alternative.

Separately, an administrator is doling out money to Gulf oil spill victims from a $20 billion fund of BP money.

The Justice Department isn’t the first government entity to sue BP. Alabama Attorney General Troy King filed federal lawsuits in August on behalf of the state against BP, rig owner Transocean, cement contractor Halliburton Energy Services Inc. and other companies that worked on the ill-fated drilling project.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is presiding over most of the consolidated federal suits. In September, Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell’s office asked Barbier to create a “government case track” to handle government-related suits separately from other claims. The judge hasn’t ruled on that request yet.