The Oil Spill Commission will unveil on Nov. 8 a three-dimensional, computerized depiction by Pixar Animation Studios of how BP’s Macondo oil well failed on April 20, resulting in explosions that killed 11 workers and led to the nation’s worst-ever oil spill, the commission’s co-chairmen said Monday.
The graphics are being donated by Pixar, famous for motion pictures ranging from “Toy Story” to “WALL.E,” and is aimed at better explaining “the actual things that went wrong in the hours surrounding the explosion,” said former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat and one of the co-chairmen of the commission.
The presentation is likely to confirm the findings of various investigations into the well failure, said co-chairman William Reilly, who was the first administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard Nixon.
The conclusions are based on testimony and interviews with rig workers and industry executives by the commission’s staff, a process that Reilly said was successful despite the commission’s lack of subpoena power.
Reilly said that commission chief counsel Fred Bartlit, whom he described as “John Wayne in pinstripes,” made it clear to prospective witnesses that it was in their best interest to cooperate.
If they didn’t, Bartlit told them, the Justice Department, which is conducting massive civil and criminal investigations, would be alerted, Reilly said. He said some witnesses may still have withheld information, however.
On Nov. 9, the commission will hold a second day of hearings focusing on the relationship between the Minerals Management Service and the companies it regulated, the relationships between those companies, and the safety culture of deepwater drilling, Graham said.
Testifying will be Shell Oil Co. president Marvin Odum, who Reilly said will deliver “a message that you can have a culture of safety, a higher priority for process safety, in a large company dealing with dangerous technology and geology.”
Reilly said the culture of safety will be a focus of the commission’s final report, which it expects to issue Jan. 11.
Exxon put a top priority on safety after the grounding of the Valdez oil tanker in Alaska in 1989, resulting in the spilling of as much as 750,000 barrels of oil in Prince William Sound, Reilly said. A similar reassessment needs to occur in deepwater oil and gas exploration and production, he said.
“They had a very high priority at the top, constant emphasis on the message that it was going to take things differently, and are very widely recognized as among the very best now,” Reilly said of Exxon management.
But getting there will likely be difficult. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has told the commission that his company first attempted to impart a new emphasis on safety by hiring consultants, and the effort failed. Eventually, the company focused on building a new safety culture internally, teaching its executives to train employees on safety rules and techniques.
The commission is likely to recommend that regulators in the future give weight to a company’s culture of safety, or lack thereof, when issuing permits, Graham said.
“One of the dimensions of this tragedy was that that site was considered to be an unusually challenging and difficult one, and the permit to drill there was given to the company that had the worst safety record of the big players in the industry,” Graham said of the decision to issue a permit to BP’s Macondo well. “I hope that by being more site specific in the future, we’ll avoid that.”
Graham, Reilly and Commissioner Don Boesch, a marine biologist at the University of Maryland who once ran the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie, also defended four recent working papers released by the commission staff that criticized the Obama administration’s spill response.
The papers focused on three key issues, Reilly said: the mischaracterization of the rate of release of oil and gas from the well in the first two months following the explosion, the varying reports on how much oil remained in the water months after the accident, and the apparent decision by the White House Office of Management and Budget to block the release of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report on potential worst-case scenarios.
“Our staff did say that it bespoke to the public either a lack of candor or incompetence,” Reilly said. “I know that the White House was quite upset about that, and NOAA was, but the facts are indisputable.”
Graham agreed that it was important to explain why the confusion occurred.
“There’s a consequence to those three things, and that consequence was an undercutting of the public confidence in the information that they were getting from their government, which has been a pervasive issue in this case,” Graham said. “And I think has not only affected public attitude on this issue, but adds to the public disaffection of the information they are getting from government on a broad front.”
The commission’s final report also is likely to recommend that the oil and gas industry create an advisory body similar to the nuclear power industry’s Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, which conducts independent inspections of a company’s management, environmental history, training, quality of equipment and even corporate leadership.
Information from the resulting ratings is used by the insurance industry to set rates, which adds to the pressure on the nuclear companies to practice safety.
Reilly said the commission’s final report will also likely include a recommendation that money be set aside for the potential “reopening” of any settlement and fine, as more information is learned about the spill’s effects.
That’s what happened in the case of the Valdez, where Exxon agreed to a $1.1 billion settlement and fine, but also set aside $100 million for unanticipated damages in the future, he said.
“Many critical questions that we and others have about the impact of this spill cannot now be answered definitively,” Reilly said. “It will take time to determine whether crab larvae impacts result in a die-off of crabs, or the shrimp population declines, or there are impacts from the dilute (oil) on bluefin tuna.”