By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; 4:40 PM
President Obama vowed a "full and vigorous accounting" of the causes of the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, telling the leaders of a new commission that they should pursue the trail of blame without limits.
"They have my full support to follow the facts wherever they may lead, without fear or favor," Obama said in the Rose Garden Tuesday after meeting with the co-chairmen of the commission, former Florida senator and governor Bob Graham and former EPA administrator William Reilly.
Obama also announced that he has ordered his top officials to triple the manpower in areas where the oil has already washed ashore or is expected to within 24 hours. Some local officials along the coast have criticized the federal government for not having enough people standing by to respond to the oil washing ashore.
The White House has sought to balance both the immediate response to the ongoing crisis and the long-term investigation. Obama said Tuesday that the commission he created will begin addressing the latter, and he promised that "very soon" he will appoint the group's other five members.
"We have an obligation to investigate what went wrong" leading to the April 20 blowout of a deep-sea oil well in the Gulf of Mexico that was being drilled on behalf of oil giant BP, Obama said during brief remarks in humid, Washington weather. If current laws are insufficient to prevent such catastrophes, "the laws must change," he said. "If oversight was inadequate to enforce these laws, oversight has to be reformed. If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region."
Obama's meeting with Graham and Reilly came after the situation in the Gulf worsened over the weekend. Efforts to kill the well by pumping mud into it failed, and administration officials acknowledged that the next attempts could make the situation worse before it gets better.
The president emerged from his Oval Office discussion looking grim and said the oil spill has now become "the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our nation's history." He said the oil gushing into the water was not only affecting the economy and the environment, but also a "way of life" in the region.
He promised that the six-month review led by Graham and Reilly will focus on "a comprehensive look at how the oil and gas industry operates and how our government oversees those operations."
And he hinted that future support for new oil drilling in the deep waters off the nation's coast would be contingent on what the commission finds. He said decisions about any expansion of drilling -- which he had announced just weeks before the spill -- would wait until the group finishes.
"Only then can we be assured that deep-water drilling can take place safely," Obama said. "Only then can we accept further development of these resources as we transition to a clean energy economy. Only then can we be confident that we've done what's necessary to prevent history from repeating itself.
The chairmen of the oil spill commission are charged with taking six months to evaluate the evidence surrounding the cause of the oil spill and to recommend changes to federal oversight and regulatory policy after they conclude. The White House explicitly compared the commission to the panel that investigated the cause of the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.
By choosing the pair -- a popular Democratic politician and a respected Republican environmental official -- the president has signaled his hope that the commission's results will be broadly accepted, regardless of the outcome.
Reilly, a former Reagan administration official, is a director of the oil company ConocoPhillips but also serves as chairman of the board of the World Wildlife Fund. Graham, a former governor and U.S. senator from Florida, was known for his focus on his state's environment.
But much will depend on the other five members of the commission, who have yet to be chosen.
Obama's executive order says they "shall be drawn from among distinguished individuals, and may include those with experience in or representing the scientific, engineering, and environmental communities, the oil and gas industry, or any other area determined by the President to be of value to the Commission in carrying out its duties."
The possible participation of industry officials has angered some environmentalists, who say the commission should not be influenced by the presence of oil company executives.
The 14-member Challenger commission, headed by William P. Rogers, a former attorney general and secretary of state to several presidents, was filled with noted scientists, astronauts and flight experts, including Neil Armstrong, Chuck Yeager and Sally K. Ride.
The Rogers Commission, as it was known, issued a scathing, 225-page report that blamed the accident on a lax culture at NASA that allowed design and decision-making errors that led to the failure of O-rings on the shuttle's solid fuel booster rockets.
Among its more famous findings was the conclusion that the disaster, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts, was "an accident rooted in history."
Now, the dual questions facing the oil spill commission are similar: What was the immediate cause of the explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and opened a gusher of oil on the sea floor? And what human factors in private industry or government made the explosion possible?
Commission members are all but certain to eventually answer the first question. But it is the second question that could have far wider implications for the future of oil drilling along the U.S. coastline.
In the wake of the Rogers Commission, shuttle flights stopped for 32 months as NASA confronted the report's findings and made changes to the procedures for launches. Obama has already ordered a six-month halt to drilling in deep water, but the future of exploration might depend on what the Graham/Reilly commission concludes.