By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; A08
President Obama will establish an independent commission to investigate the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an administration official said Monday, as the federal government came under increasing scrutiny for regulatory failures that might have contributed to the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
The panel will be similar to others that investigated the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, and will exclude current and former federal officials. It will be announced "in the coming days," according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The news came as the Interior Department's top official overseeing offshore oil and gas drilling announced that he will step down May 31 and as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled reforms intended to change the way the department conducts onshore oil and gas drilling.
Several lawmakers, including Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), had been pushing for an independent commission and had introduced legislation to pressure the White House.
Lawmakers also questioned the Minerals Management Service's oversight of oil and gas drilling, and the Interior Department was sued in two separate courts on the issue.
In a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing Monday, Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) questioned the agency's policies toward oil companies and BP's lack of readiness for a major oil spill.
"I continue to hold the federal government responsible for continuing to issue permits for deepwater drilling without demanding that the companies engaged in that drilling be better prepared for an accident, an explosion," Lieberman said.
He said that although he supports expanding domestic energy production, "until those questions are answered satisfactorily, I don't see how our government can allow any new deep-water wells to be permitted and drilled. . . . The U.S. government has a responsibility to the public safety that is more important, and that responsibility, I fear, was not fulfilled in this case."
Two environmental groups, Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama to try to bar the MMS from continuing to exempt new exploratory drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico from the sort of detailed analysis required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The groups cited documents showing that the MMS provided "categorical exclusions" to more than 20 new structures and exploratory wells in the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
"It's unconscionable that after the Deepwater Horizon blew and began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, MMS continues to approve new drilling at even deeper depths without environmental review," said Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "Through our lawsuit today, we're seeking an immediate halt to new exploratory drilling in the Gulf of Mexico proceeding without environmental review."
Salazar said that with the reforms being put into place, exclusions from an environmental review will be issued only under "extraordinary circumstances."
In a separate move, former BP contractor Kenneth Abbott and his attorneys filed an injunction in federal court in Houston to try to force Interior to shut down BP's Atlantis rig, which he said has lacked hundreds of complete engineering documents since it started operation in 2007. BP denied the allegation.
Interior officials said they did not encourage Chris Oynes -- whose served in the government for 35 years -- to retire, even though he has come under fire from former MMS officials for being too close to the industry officials he regulates.
"This was Chris Oynes' decision to retire after almost 35 years of public service," an Interior official said in an e-mail. The official asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivity of a personnel matter. "Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, he approached leadership at MMS and announced he would be retiring on June 30th, and today he told his colleagues that he would be accelerating his retirement."
Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.