Izaak Walton League of America

Summary of BP Oil Spill Commission Findings and Recommendations

On January 11, 2011, a presidential commission appointed to investigate the causes of the Gulf oil spill issued its final report. The following highlights key findings and recommendations, which the Commission believes would help to reduce the likelihood of a similar tragedy and better prepare the country and industry to respond to future deepwater drilling disasters.

Overall, the Commission concludes that the “Deepwater Horizon disaster was foreseeable and preventable. Errors and misjudgments by three major drilling companies – BP, Halliburton, and Transocean – played key roles in the disaster. Government regulation was ineffective, and failed to keep pace with technology advancements in offshore drilling.” Moreover, the Commission finds that the “well blowout was the product of human error, engineering mistakes, and management failures.” These errors and mistakes include the repeated failure of special wellhead cement in lab tests; failure to recognize problems with pressure tests of the well, which are designed to test the integrity of cement and other seals; and the failure of company managers to ask tough questions and probe for answers when such tests and other procedures failed to produce results associated with safe and effective operations.

The Commission also looked closely at government oversight and concludes that such oversight was also ineffective in reducing the risk of a blowout. Oversight was compromised by commingling regulation and promotion of energy development within the former Minerals Management Service (MMS). In addition, government regulation and staff expertise within MMS and the Department of Interior failed to keep pace with rapid technological change associated with deepwater drilling.

Among the more self-evident findings, the Commission states that neither the oil industry nor the government was prepared to respond to a massive deepwater spill. It also concludes that spill response technology and approaches were little changed since the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989. This indicates that while drilling technology has been modernized, equipment and strategies to respond to major oil spills have not.

Based on the results of its investigation, the Commission offers a series of recommendations designed to reduce the risk of similar disasters and improve response capability. The Commission acknowledges the risks associated with oil exploration and drilling in deeper and deeper waters, but also makes clear that it “believes that deepwater drilling can be done safely.” Key recommendations include

  • Creating an independent offshore drilling safety agency: The Commission recommends that “Congress and the Administration should create an independent safety agency with the Department of Interior, headed by an official shielded from political interference by a fixed term (as we do with other critical, non-political positions like the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation)…”
  • Augmenting NOAA’s oversight role: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is responsible for marine research and protection, should have a more formal role in offshore oil and gas leasing decisions.
  • Boosting science and technical research: The Commission states that “better scientific and technical information is essential to making informed decisions about risk before exploration or drilling commence.”
  • Increasing the cap on industry liability for spills and accidents: Under the Oil Pollution Act, company liability for spills from offshore facilities is capped at $75 million. According to the Commission, this amount is “totally inadequate and places the economic risk on the backs of victims and the taxpayer. The cap should be raised significantly to place the burden of catastrophic failure on those who will gain the economic rewards, and to compensate innocent victims.”
  • Directing the majority of financial penalties paid by BP and others to Gulf restoration: The Commission recommends that Congress direct 80% of any Clean Water Act penalties, which could total billions of dollars in fines and other penalties not include within the $75 million cap above, to the long-term restoration of the Gulf of Mexico. Although multiple plans have been developed to restore wetlands, barrier islands, and habitat throughout the region, implementation has been limited, in part, because such restoration requires billions of dollars in new investment.

This reflects a broad and general summary of the Commission’s findings and recommendations. For its complete report and supporting materials, visit http://www.oilspillcommission.gov/.

Next Steps
Although issuing the report is critical, Commission Co-Chair William Reilly, who served as EPA Administrator under President George H.W. Bush, signaled clearly that the most important steps are yet to come. He said, “Our most important work may occur in the next two months as we meet with all affected parties and impress upon the Congress, industry, and the nation the urgent need to act on these recommendations.” In late January, the Committee on Natural Resources in the U.S. House and Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in the U.S. Senate held hearings on the findings. However, it remains unclear how Congress and the Obama administration will utilize the Commission’s findings and recommendations in the future.

– Scott Kovarovics, IWLA Conservation Director


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