Oil Spill Commission Action Group Gives Congress Low Grades For Regulatory Reform On Drilling

Oil Spill Commission Action Group Gives Congress Low Grades For Regulatory Reform On Drilling

Two years after BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig foundered and sank in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 crew members and unleashing an 87-day torrent of oil that soiled surrounding beaches and poisoned delicate coral reefs, a pair of assessments paint a somewhat bleak picture of the subsequent regulatory reform.

Following the BP spill, which was set in motion on April 20, 2010, President Barack Obama established an investigatory body -- the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling -- that was charged with determining the cause of the accident and recommending steps to make offshore energy development more safe.

In January 2011, that commission issued a final report outlining a variety of "critical" safety recommendations. The panel disbanded two months later.

On Tuesday, a group of former members of that commission, now calling itself Oil Spill Commission Action, issued an assessment of the government's implementation of those suggestions.

The group -- which includes former Democratic Senator from Florida Bob Graham, Natural Resources Defense council president Frances G. Beinecke and Cherry A. Murray, the dean of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, among others -- said that while some progress has been made, Congress in particular has failed to pass much-needed legislation.

"Although the Administration and industry have made significant progress, Congress has not," Graham said in a prepared statement. "Across the board, we are disappointed with Congress's lack of action. Two years have passed since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers, and Congress has yet to enact one piece of legislation to make drilling safer."

On her blog, Beinecke noted that the former commissioners gave Congress a grade of "D" for its failure to act -- an assessment worse than that earned by the oil industry itself, which was handed a "C+" by the group in part for taking steps to improve safety culture industry-wide.

Congress has held a number of hearings on the issue of drilling safety in the two years since the BP spill, and has considered a variety of proposed bills. In 2010, the 111th House passed a bill that included a number of the changes that the commission would eventually include in its final report, but the Senate failed to take up the measure. The current Congress has not revisited the commission's recommendations, although Republican members have introduced a variety of bills aimed at speeding offshore drilling and loosening regulations, according to the former commissioners.

A full accounting of congressional action in the wake of the BP spill is maintained at the website of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

Requests for comment from Republican leaders Joe Barton of Texas, a member of the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Fred Upton of Michigan, that committee's chairman, were not immediately returned. Barton made waves during the summer of 2010, as the oil was still flowing unchecked, for apologizing to BP's chief executive at the time, Tony Hayward, for what Barton called the Obama administration's "$20 billion shakedown" of the company -- a reference BP's acquiescing to the creation of a compensation fund for Gulf oil spill victims.

Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon highlighting legislation that he introduced last year and calling the former commission's report card "an important reminder of the need to pass critical reforms to protect the workers, environment and economy of the Gulf that House Republicans continue to block.”

In an email message, Drew Hammill, a spokesman for California Democrat and minority leader Nancy Pelosi, also blamed Republicans for lack of action. "House Republicans have passed numerous bills that put our environment at risk and the public’s safety and livelihood in jeopardy," Hammill said, "while ignoring Mr. Markey’s legislation."

The Obama administration was given a "B" by the group of former commission members, largely in a nod to the reformation of the former Minerals Management Service, which was seen by many critics as inherently conflicted in its dual role of overseeing offshore drilling safety and collecting money from the drilling industry through lease sales. Today those functions are handled by two agencies: The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, both part of the Department of Interior.

The administration, however, must do more to ensure enforcement, the former commissioners declared.

Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for the Interior Department, said in an email message that in the wake of the BP disaster, "the Obama administration undertook the most aggressive and comprehensive reforms to offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight in U.S. history."

The administration's reforms, according to Fetcher, have extended to everything from well design and workplace safety to corporate accountability.

"In addition to these historic reforms, which have mainly been implemented administratively," he added, "the administration continues to call on Congress to take action to codify and implement critical reforms."

A second analysis of offshore drilling reform, issued Tuesday by the environmental group Oceana, was far less generous to lawmakers and regulators alike, giving the government a slew of "D's" and "F's" for failing to fully implement virtually all of the recommendations made by the national commission and other expert panels in the aftermath of the spill.

The environmental group also condemned the lack of progress as drilling companies move into even harsher and more challenging environments in search of oil, particularly Arctic waters off the Alaska coast.

"Because of the unique and greater risks of drilling in frontier regions, the stakes in these areas could not be higher," the Oceana report stated, adding that the commission empaneled by President Obama after the BP spill had stressed three key recommendations as drilling companies move into areas like the Arctic: establishing adequate science, ensuring that regulations fully address risks and providing for appropriate containment and response plans should an accident occur.

"None of these three broad categories of recommendations have been sufficiently addressed in general, let alone in frontier areas," the Oceana report concluded.

Responding to these charges, DOI spokesman Fetcher forwarded a fact sheet outlining the Obama administration's commitment to safe exploration of the Arctic.

"The Administration is pursuing a balanced and careful approach to offshore development in the Arctic," the memo reads, "that accounts for resource potential, environmental protection, and the social, cultural and subsistence needs of Alaskan communities."

This article has been updated to include more information on Congress' recent history on drilling safety issues, and to include comment from members of Congress.

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