The federal government must beef up oversight of the offshore oil and gas industry, the federal commission on the deadly Gulf of Mexico oil spill said Tuesday. The seven-member committee released its final report on the April 20 disaster, listing 15 major recommendations.
The national commission has already had harsh words for the oil and gas industry and its role in the blowout at BP's Macondo well, which left 11 workers dead and released 4 million barrels of oil from the deep-sea floor. But in releasing its final recommendations, commission co-chairman Bob Graham said industry alone was not responsible for the catastrophe.
"I'm sad to say that part of the answer is the fact that our government let it happen," the former Florida senator said. "Our regulators were consistently outmatched. The Department of Interior lacked the in-house expertise to effectively enforce regulation."
One of the committee's biggest recommendations is to revamp part of the Department of the Interior. That means, among other things, getting a safety office to rely more on science in its decisions; to pay enough to attract top-rate technical people; and to be more independent than it is right now.
Separate Revenue From Regulation
Commission co-chairman Bill Reilly noted that in the aftermath of the spill, the Department of the Interior did split in two its Minerals Management Service to separate the revenue-collecting arm from its regulatory arm.
"That is a move to the good," Reilly said. "We support that, and respect it. We think it's not enough."
Instead, Reilly said a safety and environment office should be better insulated from economic and political pressures. One way to do that is to have a director appointed for a set term and therefore less vulnerable to changing political winds.
"We think for the long term that is the only way to ensure that revenues do not again become excessively influential in decisions relating to non-revenue items such as safety and environment," Reilly, a former EPA administrator, said.
The office should not only regulate the industry but raise its safety and environmental standards, the commission said. It found that Norway and the United Kingdom now have stricter regulations and a better safety record.
'The Industry Was Not Prepared For This'
Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, didn't dispute that assertion directly, but he disagreed with the commission's conclusion that problems are systemic throughout the nation's oil and gas industry.
"You look back over all history of the Gulf of Mexico, and you see that it's a remarkable industry with a remarkable safety record," Luthi said. "And I think the commission didn't just give enough play for that."
But one commissioner, Terry Garcia, said it's clear that the failures weren't simply the bad decisions on the rig that led up to the deadly blowout. "What was not in doubt and what is not disputed is that the industry was not prepared for this," Garcia said.
Nobody had the necessary gear in place to bring the blowout under control quickly or to capture the oil as it spread through and across the waters of the Gulf.
Graham said Congress will need to act to institute some of these recommendations, and he is optimistic that it will, even in a political climate that's increasingly hostile to federal regulation.
"What makes that level of optimism, I think, credible is the fact that members of Congress understand that this is not just a typical example of government regulating a private enterprise. This is government regulating land that the government and the people of the United States own."
And Graham hopes the commission's report will turn out to be a guide to better stewardship.