Obama creates independent commission to study gulf oil spill

US President Barack Obama signed an executive order on May 21 creating an independent commission to investigate the Gulf of Mexico crude oil spill and offshore exploration and production.

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 24 -- US President Barack Obama signed an executive order on May 21 creating an independent commission to investigate the Gulf of Mexico crude oil spill and offshore exploration and production. He named former US Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and former US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly as its co-chairmen.

“While there are a number of ongoing investigations, including an independent review by the National Academy of Engineering, the purpose of this commission is to consider both the root causes of the disaster and offer options on what safety and environmental precautions we need to take to prevent a similar disaster from happening again,” the president said on May 22 in his weekly radio address.

Obama said he intends to appoint five more people, “including scientists, engineers, and environmental advocates,” to the commission. “I’m directing them to report back in 6 months with recommendations on how we can prevent—and mitigate the impact of—any future spills that resort from offshore drilling,” Obama said.

The president acknowledged that the commission will be similar to one proposed on May 6 by US Reps. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and US Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Capps applauded Obama’s plan when she learned of it on May 17. “To ensure that our scrutiny matches the depth and breadth of this human, economic, and environmental disaster, we need an independent commission that can determine exactly what went wrong and make recommendations to prevent future tragedies,” she said.

In his address, Obama said that citizens along the US Gulf Coast are rightly demanding that the spill be cleaned up immediately as they demand answers to what caused the Apr. 20 Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig explosion, which led to the spill. He criticized “a breakdown in responsibility” by BP PLC, the deepwater well’s operator, “and perhaps others” including Transocean Ltd., the drilling contractor, and Halliburton Co., which provided cementing services for the well. He promised to hold “relevant companies” responsible for the spill, its cleanup, and its damages.

‘Cozy relationship’
Washington should be accountable, Obama continued. “If the laws on our books are inadequate to prevent such an oil spill, or if we didn’t enforce these laws, I want to know,” he said. “I want to know what worked and what didn’t work in our response to the disaster, and where oversight of the oil and gas industry broke down. We know, for example, that a cozy relationship between oil and gas companies and agencies that regulate them has long been a source of concern.”

He noted that US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has taken steps already to address such matters that build on reforms he has been implementing since taking office. Obama noted that inspections of all deepwater operations in the gulf also were ordered, no new permits for offshore wells will be approved until a 30-day safety and environmental review he request is complete, and the administration has sent legislation to Congress seeking funding and tools to respond to this bill and to better prepare the US for future offshore spills.

But more needs to be done, which is why he established the independent commission, Obama said. His executive order included authority to hold public hearings and request information from federal, state, and local government officials; nongovernment organizations’ private entities; scientific institutions; industry and workforce representatives; communities; and others affected by the latest spill.

American Petroleum Institute Pres. Jack N. Gerard supported Obama’s decision. “While many Americans are understandably concerned about safety and the environmental risk associated with offshore drilling, we hope policymakers use the valuable independent insights that will result from the commission’s work to inform the legislative and regulatory process to ensure that decisions made do not have the unintended consequence of reducing domestic energy supplies, weakening our energy security, and costing some of the 9.2 million American jobs supported by the US oil and gas industry,” he said in a May 18 statement.

Environmental organizations also applauded the president’s action. “We are confident that with the president’s commission in place, we will soon see those responsible accountable for the full cost of recovery, significant improvements in the safety and oversight of this dangerous industry, and a plan to move America toward a clean energy future,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said on May 22.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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