Oil spill panel faces challenges, criticism as it begins work

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; A06

The presidential commission appointed to study the causes of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and to recommend improvements for offshore drilling has navigated tight spots as it prepares to begin work this week.

Unlike the commissions that investigated space-shuttle accidents and the Three Mile Island nuclear incident, the Deepwater panel must analyze what went wrong while things still are going wrong.

That real-time analysis of a catastrophe "makes this commission pretty unusual," said Amy Zegart, an associate professor at UCLA's School of Public Affairs who has studied the more than 600 presidential commissions convened in the past two decades.

The seven-member commission, which holds hearings Monday and Tuesday in New Orleans, also must find its role amid eight other investigations -- and a Justice Department probe -- into the April 20 explosion that killed 11 and sent oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Created by President Obama in a May 22 executive order, the commission faces questions about whether it has the expertise and objectivity to deliver credible and compelling recommendations.

The New Orleans sessions start a six-month clock for delivering a final report to the president. Members will tour communities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida before converging for hearings in New Orleans, which commission co-chairman William K. Reilly said will "give voice to the region." The closing hours of each session will be devoted to testimony from local people and state officials affected by the spill.

Reilly was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. He sits on the board of directors of ConocoPhillips, from which he has taken a temporary leave. His co-chairman is Bob Graham, the former governor and later senator from Florida who led efforts against offshore drilling on that state's coasts.

The commission begins work without its own budget, without subpoena power and while it is filling its expected 35 full-time staff slots.

Obama asked Congress to approve $15 million for the commission, which was cut to $12 million by the House and is under debate in the Senate. For now, the commission is relying on $4 million that came through the Energy Department, Graham said.

In a teleconference Friday, both Graham and Reilly said the commission hopes to improve the safety of offshore drilling by understanding what went wrong with the BP site. That focus turns on how -- not whether -- to drill offshore.

Graham said the commission hopes "to answer the question of what can be done to make this activity significantly safer." Reilly said that resolving questions surrounding a deep-water drilling moratorium "is not going to be a priority of the commission." He noted that the issue is getting attention in federal court from the industry and the administration.

Reilly said he also expects the commission to question other decisions that "look irregular to the casual observer." He cited blanket exemptions on certain environmental requirements given by federal regulators and their approval of inadequate spill response plans.

Wrestling with the safety culture of an industry is "the most important thing" a commission can do to have a lasting impact, but that won't be easy with an industry as large as oil, said former Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, a member of the panel that investigated the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. Unlike the nuclear industry, which is fairly small, the oil industry has "all sorts of players, from rogue operators to quite good ones," Babbitt said, which makes it harder for the commission to induce a cultural shift.

Although newly open for business, the oil spill commission has come under criticism -- and has begun responding.

Several blog entries written by commission members before their appointments called for banning or delaying offshore-drilling proposals. Their comments have drawn criticism from the oil industry and some local officials worried about economic hardships caused by shutdowns.

As president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Frances G. Beinecke supported the Obama administration's moratorium on drilling in deep waters after the explosion and on May 27 blamed BP, inadequate government oversight and "America's addiction to oil" for the disaster. Beinecke halted her blog after joining the commission.

That type of commentary left industry analysts, including Robin West, leery. West, chairman of PFC Energy, said "people in the industry are quite prepared to get to the bottom of facts on what happened" and restore confidence in offshore operations. But, he said, "will the commission be objective and informed about a highly complex industry?"

On Saturday, Graham and Reilly hired a former oil company executive as the senior staff member for science and engineering. He is Richard Sears, a visiting scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who retired from Shell in 2009 after 33 years. He had been their vice president for international exploration and deep-water technical evaluation.

"The idea that we come to this as novices does not fully appreciate the background" of the commission, said Graham.

The remaining panel members are Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; Terry D. Garcia, executive vice president for the National Geographic Society, overseeing programs in scientific field research, conservation and exploration; Cherry A. Murray, dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Frances Ulmer, chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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