Presidential Commission to Scrutinize BP Oil Spill, Senators Seek Criminal Probe

Presidential Commission to Scrutinize BP Oil Spill, Senators Seek Criminal Probe

WASHINGTON, DC, May 17, 2010 (ENS) – President Barack Obama will establish an independent commission to investigate the cause of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the response to it as early as Tuesday, according to statements of elected representatives and media reports late today.

BP leased the oil rig, which exploded and sank in April, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, leaving the broken wellhead gushing oil into gulf waters for the past 27 days. The oil slick now covers at least 7,500 square miles.

“President Obama creating an independent blue-ribbon panel on this oil spill will help provide the recommendations to ensure that similar disasters do not happen again,” said Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts today. Markey and Lois Capps of California, both Democrats, introduced legislation May 6 proposing a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the oil spill and make precautionary recommendations.

Senators Barbara Boxer of California, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Robert Menendez of New Jersey have a companion bill.

A federal investigation is now being conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service, MMS, the agency responsible for oversight of offshore drilling in federal waters.

The work of a presidential commission would likely take precedence over that investigation and probe the MMS’ regulation of offshore drilling that allowed BP to drill without proof that a spill could be prevented.

Flanked by federal officials and Cabinet members, President Barack Obama expresses anger and frustration with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Photo by Chuck Kennedy courtesy The White House)

“The commission will take into account the investigations underway concerning the causes of the spill and explore a range of issues including: industry practices; rig safety; federal, state, and local regulatory regimes; federal governmental oversight, including the structure and functions of MMS; and environmental review and other protections,” a White House official told the “New York Times,” requesting that his identity be shielded.

Created by Executive Order, the commission will be parallel to those that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, the official said.

President Obama Friday expressed anger at the ongoing oil spill disaster. On his trip to the gulf earlier this month, Obama said he “saw firsthand the anger and frustration felt by our neighbors in the Gulf. And let me tell you, it is an anger and frustration that I share as President.”

“A full investigation will tell us exactly what happened,” Obama said Friday. “But it is pretty clear that the system failed, and it failed badly. And for that, there is enough responsibility to go around. And all parties should be willing to accept it.”

Chris Oynes, MMS associate director, offshore energy and minerals management (Photo courtesy MMS)

“That includes, by the way, the federal government,” the President said. “For too long, for a decade or more, there has been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill. It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies. That cannot and will not happen anymore.”

In view of the impending shakeup of the Minerals Management Service, Chris Oynes, the MMS associate director, offshore energy and minerals management, today informed colleagues he will retire at the end of the month, according to an email sent to agency officials and obtained by Associated Press.

BP may be facing a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Senator Boxer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and seven other members of the committee, today asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to open an investigation into “potential violations of civil and criminal laws” related to the ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Greenpeace oil spill specialist Paul Horsman inspects oil on a Louisiana beach in the South Pass area near the mouth of the Mississippi River. May 17, 2010. (Photo by Daniel Beltra courtesy Greenpeace)

The senators want the Justice Department to probe whether “British Petroleum (BP) made false and misleading statements to the federal government regarding its ability to respond to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico,” the senators wrote in a letter to Holder.

In the course of the committee’s hearings into the oil spill disaster, the senators reviewed a BP document which states, “In the event of an unanticipated blowout resulting in an oil spill, it is unlikely to have an impact based on the industry wide standards for using proven equipment and technology for such responses, implementation of BP’s Regional Oil Spill Response Plan which address available equipment and personnel, techniques for containment and recovery and removal of the oil spill.”

But, the senators point out in their letter to Holder, “In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it does not in any way appear that there was ‘proven equipment and technology’ to respond to the spill, which could have tragic consequences for local economies and the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico. Much of the response and implementation of spill control technologies appears to be taking place on an ad hoc basis.”

They quote a BP statement on May 10, which said, “All of the techniques being attempted or evaluated to contain the flow of oil on the seabed involve significant uncertainties because they have not been tested in these conditions before.”

On Tuesday, the committee will continue its investigation into the oil spill, hearing from U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and other administration officials.

Senator Boxer and Senator Ben Nelson today requested all video records of oil gushing from the broken pipe and wellhead. A short video clip released last week quickly led some scientists to estimate the spill is much worse than the earlier Coast Guard estimate of 5,000 barrels a day. Calculations by a variety of scientists estimated up to 70,000 barrels a day could be spilling out into the gulf.

“The size of the spill is of special concern to many people,” the lawmakers said. “For example, the Gulf’s loop current could sweep oil down to the Florida Keys and then up the east coast of the state in the Gulfstream,” they said.

The drillship Discoverer Enterprise over the leaking wellhead as it recovers oil from BP’s riser insertion tube. The gas flare is visible off the far side of the ship. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Renee Aiello, courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Meanwhile, on Saturday night BP inserted a tube into the piping coming off the well and is siphoning off about one-fifth of the oil and gas spilling from the well, the first time the company achieved any control of the oil spill. The oil is being collected aboard a ship at the surface, the the gas is being flared off.

On Sunday, William Hogarth, dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, told reporters that one computer model shows oil is already in the Gulf’s largest loop current, and another shows it just three miles from the current. Hogarth is a former director of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the immediate past chairman of the International Whaling Commission.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center today filed a lawsuit challenging the Minerals Management Service’s “complicity” in the Gulf oil disaster and continued lax oversight of oil drilling operations, including its failure to require a thorough examination of spill risks from exploratory drilling operations like the Deepwater Horizon.

Filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, the suit seeks to prohibit the MMS from continuing to exempt from environmental review new exploratory drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

“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, 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.”

According to documents filed by the two groups in court, the MMS’ continued exemption of over 20 new structures and exploratory wells from environmental review of the risks after the current oil spill is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The agency’s continued issuance of these waivers, known as categorical exclusions, must be halted in light of the environmental harm caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon spill.

Since the Deepwater explosion and spill and with no explanation, MMS has authorized over 20 new categorical exclusions for exploratory oil drilling operations in the Gulf, at least eight of which would be at depths deeper than the Deepwater Horizon. Four would drill to almost twice the depth – over 9,000 feet – of the one currently spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico,

The MMS 2004 guidance creating a categorical exclusion for exploratory drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico made clear that the exclusion should not apply to proposed operations in certain areas, including in “relatively untested deep water.”

Yet, MMS granted the Deepwater Horizon a categorical exclusion from environmental review despite the fact that the exploratory drilling was to take place in almost 5,000 feet of water.

And in Washington, the Center for Biological Diversity today filed a lawsuit against Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar over his continued approval of offshore drilling plans in the Gulf of Mexico without environmental review. Filed in U.S. District Court, the lawsuit seeks to overturn government policies exempting oil drilling from the environmental reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Ken Salazar has learned absolutely nothing from this national catastrophe,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “He is still illegally exempting dangerous offshore drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico from all environmental review as millions of gallons of oil gush into the ocean. It is outrageous and unacceptable.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.

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