Oil Spill Commission: ‘Complacency’ Led to Deepwater Horizon Disaster
WASHINGTON, DC, January 11, 2011 (ENS) – “Complacency about risks to safety had catastrophic consequences in the Deepwater Horizon explosion,” concludes the final report of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. “The Deepwater Horizon disaster exhibits the costs of a culture of complacency.”
The report and its 60 pages of recommendations were released today, dedicated to the 11 men who lost their lives in the April 20, 2010 blowout of BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico and to their families, “in hope that this report will help minimize the chance of another such disaster ever happening again.”
Oil Spill Commission Co-chairs William Reilly, left, and Bob Graham release their final report at the National Press Club, January 11, 2011. (Photo by Medill DC)
The seven member bipartisan commission was appointed by President Barack Obama on May 22, 2010 to determine the root causes of the disaster and make recommendations to prevent another such incident. Co-chaired by former U.S. Senator and Governor Bob Graham of Florida and former U.S. EPA Administrator William Reilly, the commission says they did so “in a constructive spirit.”
“Both government and industry failed to anticipate and prevent this catastrophe, and failed again to be prepared to respond to it,” the commission states. “There are recurring themes of missed warning signals, failure to share information, and a general lack of appreciation for the risks involved.”
Ultimately, the commission said, it is the U.S. demand for oil that drives companies to drill in the deepwater of the outer continental shelf and the Arctic, but the report emphasizes, “To be allowed to drill on the outer continental shelf is a privilege to be earned, not a private right to be exercised.”
Recommendations include a new government agency within the Department of the Interior to oversee the safety and integrity of all offshore energy facilities – both oil and gas production and renewable energy production.
The commission also recommends that industry create a new, private-sector entity that will work with government bodies to define best practices and police them.
“The public interest will also be served by such an entity, which will encourage excellence in operational integrity and help shape new safety norms and high safety expectations across the entire offshore oil and gas business,” the commission said.
As a result of the investigation, the commission reached seven conclusions:
- The explosive loss of the Macondo well could have been prevented.
- The immediate causes of the Macondo well blowout can be traced to a series of identifiable mistakes made by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean that reveal such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.
- Deepwater energy exploration and production, particularly at the frontiers of experience, involve risks for which neither industry nor government has been adequately prepared, but for which they can and must be prepared in the future.
- To assure human safety and environmental protection, regulatory oversight of leasing, energy exploration, and production require reforms even beyond those significant reforms already initiated since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Fundamental reform will be needed in both the structure of those in charge of regulatory oversight and their internal decisionmaking process to ensure their political autonomy, technical expertise, and their full consideration of environmental protection concerns.
- Because regulatory oversight alone will not be sufficient to ensure adequate safety, the oil and gas industry will need to take its own, unilateral steps to increase dramatically safety throughout the industry, including self-policing mechanisms that supplement governmental enforcement.
- The technology, laws and regulations, and practices for containing, responding to, and cleaning up spills lag behind the real risks associated with deepwater drilling into large, high-pressure reservoirs of oil and gas located far offshore and thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. Government must close the existing gap and industry must support rather than resist that effort.
- Scientific understanding of environmental conditions in sensitive environments in deep Gulf waters, along the region’s coastal habitats, and in areas proposed for more drilling, such as the Arctic, is inadequate. The same is true of the human and natural impacts of oil spills.
While its investigation was detailed and exhaustive, the commission admitted to still being in the dark about some aspects of the disaster.
“There is still much we do not know – for instance, the blowout preventer, the last line of defense against loss of well control, is still being analyzed; and the Deepwater Horizon itself, after its explosive destruction, remained out of reach during our investigation. The understandable, immediate need to provide answers and concrete suggestions trumped the benefits of a longer, more comprehensive investigation. And as we know from other spills, their environmental consequences play out over decades – and often in unexpected ways.”
“The damage from the spill and the impact on the people of the Gulf has guided our work from the very beginning,” the commission said.
“Our first action as a Commission was to visit the Gulf region, to learn directly from those most affected. We heard deeply moving accounts from oystermen witnessing multi-generation family businesses slipping away, fishermen and tourism proprietors bearing the brunt of an ill-founded stigma affecting everything related to the Gulf, and oil rig workers dealing with mounting bills and threatened home foreclosures, their means of support temporarily derailed by a blanket drilling moratorium, shutting down all deepwater drilling rigs, including those not implicated in the BP spill.”
The Gulf ecosystem itself has been damaged, and the commission said, “No one should be deluded that restoration on the scale required will occur quickly or cheaply.”
Empasizing the need for a “new, independent” government agency to ensure the safety of offshore facilities, the commission found that “political pressure” and “industry pressure” on the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service led to that agency’s favoring development over protection of human health, safety, and the environment.
Shortly after the blowout, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar renamed MMS the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, BOEMRE, and announced a plan to split its responsibilities into three separate offices – offshore leasing, safety, and revenue management.
Ship navigates through ribbons of oil on the Gulf of Mexico, May 6, 2010. (Photo by Igor Podgorny/Greenpeace)
Recognizing the reorganization as a “significant improvement,” the commission said “it does not adequately address the deeper problem of fully insulating the Department’s safety and environmental protection functions from the pressures to increase production and maximize lease revenues.”
The commission also recommends that for high-risk drilling, the government, “Establish a process under the auspices of the National Academy of Engineering to identify criteria for high-risk wells and develop methodology to assess those risks,” especially in “areas with complex geology, ultra-deep water, and any other frontier or high-risk areas – such as the Arctic.”
The commission urged Congress to increase the limit on per-incident payouts from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, now capped at $75 million.
EPA and the Coast Guard should establish distinct plans and procedures for responding to a spill of national significance, and Congress should enact legislation creating a mechanism for offshore oil and gas operators to provide ongoing and regular funding of the agencies regulating offshore oil and gas development, the commission recommends.
Citing the failure of Louisiana’s expensive and controversial sand berms to contain more than 1,000 barrels of oil before the Macondo well was capped on July 19, 2010, the commission recommends that the Coast Guard establish that offshore dredged barriers generally will not be officially authorized as an oil spill response measure.
Gulf of Mexico oil spill as seen from the International Space Station, May 4, 2010. The oil appears dark or light depending on the angle of the Sun striking the gulf. (Photo by Expedition 23 crew courtesy NASA)
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said Tuesday that she is inviting members of the commission to appear before her panel.
“Some steps have already been taken to improve safety, but this report makes clear that more needs to be done to prevent a disaster like this from ever happening again,” said Boxer. “I am committed to working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward on legislation that addresses the Commission’s recommendations, ensures that oil companies are held accountable, and protects jobs, coastal communities and the environment.”
Hearings before at least four other congressional committees are planned as the commission’s co-chairmen try to persuade Congress to act on their recommendations.
In the House Natural Resources Committee, Chairman Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican, said, “Several of the recommendations put forward deserve real consideration and will be more closely examined during our Committee hearings. Reforms should accomplish our shared goals of improving safety, allowing drilling to move forward in a timely manner, and putting people back to work. Proposals that prolong the de facto moratorium in the Gulf, cost American jobs, or delay future energy production will be viewed skeptically in both the House and Senate.”
Ranking Member Congressman Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who led a key Congressional investigation into the BP spill last year and co-authored the first legislation to establish an independent spill investigation, announced that he will introduce legislation reflecting the commission’s recommendations.
“Because systemic safety and oversight issues regarding the offshore oil industry persist, if we do not enact reforms, there will likely be repeats of this disaster,” said Markey.
“The spill commission’s independent assessment of America’s worst oil spill must lead to reforms, and today’s release of the commission’s report needs to end the objections that Republican leaders in Washington have raised to legislative action,” Markey said. “The results are now in and now it is time for action.”
For earlier ENS reporting on the Oil Spill Commission’s report see: Presidential Panel Blames Companies for ‘Avoidable’ Gulf Oil Spill