Conversations: Bob Graham and William K. Reilly

Q & A: Chairs of BP oil-spill panel discuss drilling moratorium, response efforts

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Monday, August 9, 2010

On Aug. 25, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling will meet in Washington. The seven members of the bipartisan panel appointed by the president held their inaugural session in New Orleans in July to investigate the April 20 BP blowout. The commission must deliver a written report to President Obama by January on the root causes of the disaster, ways to guard against deep-water spills and improvements in spill response.

As it faces that deadline, the commission and its staff of about 20 still await congressional action to give it subpoena power and to fully fund its work -- a request for $12 million was stripped from an appropriations bill before the August recess. The panel also was drawn into the debate over the federal moratorium on deep-water drilling.

In New Orleans, the members heard heartfelt pleas from gulf-area residents about lost wages, spoiled beaches and threats to their way of life, capped by a fisherman who captivated the hotel meeting room when he played guitar and sang about the effects he felt. The Washington session will focus on the role of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, the now-renamed agency that inspected drilling rigs and approved company spill response plans.

Below are excerpts from a conversation with the commission's co-chairmen, Bob Graham and William K. Reilly. Graham is a former senator and Florida governor. Reilly headed the Environmental Protection Agency during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill.

QGive me some of the impressions you have after your first session. What surprises?

Graham: The diversity of the impacts of this spill has impressed me. We spent a day in the panhandle of Florida between Panama City and Pensacola, and a lot of it was spent with fishermen who had a whole series of very specific concerns. . . . The federal waters had been closed for much of the normal fishing period and [they] asked would there be an extension at the end of the period and, if so, how would the limitation on volume of catch be handled. That was illustrative of the specificity of implications of this event.

Reilly: The biggest surprise to me was the virtual unanimity of opposition to the moratorium. I had a private meeting with about a dozen fishermen in Mississippi, and if there was any group that I had expected might have sympathy for the moratorium and has a lot to risk and already has lost considerably from a spill, I would have thought it was that group. They absolutely did not support it. The shutdown of the rigs and loss of employment and income on the part of people who work on the rigs and service them in one way or another . . . it simply has had an effect that was stunning.

Does that put you in mind that you need to say something about the moratorium? , h Have you been struggling with that?

Graham: Bill and I did make some comments in New Orleans, and as we begin to put together our report one of the chapters will no doubt have a title such as "Response" and look at how did the various public and private entities respond. . . . I think we would be making comments under that section as to: How effective was the moratorium? How well was the moratorium administered and managed? What were the consequences . . . on the side of safety, encouraging enhanced response as contrasted to the economic aspects?

Reilly: I don't understand why it would take six months to vet 33 [deep-water] rigs [under the moratorium] for safety, environmental compliance, regulatory integrity. It's never been made clear to me, and the testimony we received in New Orleans was not convincing on that. The commission has sent a letter to the Bipartisan Policy Center requesting it to organize a group of experts . . . to essentially frame the questions that should be asked relative to what is necessary to resume prudently drilling in deep water in the gulf, and we expect to have those questions in the next few weeks and refer them to the Interior Department and ask, "Which of these questions have you not yet answered and what are you doing to answer them?"

Where do things stand on your appropriation waiting for Congress? Are you still running off that interim $4 million from DOE (Department of Energy)?

Graham: Yes. . . . And thus far we have been able to meet our payroll and other obligations.

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