Fran Ulmer hopes oil spill commission spurs changes to U.S. policy


FAIRBANKS — A lot of things had to go wrong for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to happen last summer.

The accident that killed 11 people and spilled an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico was caused by a string of mistakes, malfunctions and miscommunications. A dozen system and equipment failures happened aboard the oil rig on April 20, 2010, before an explosion triggered the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Fran Ulmer, who spoke about the spill at the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks on Tuesday, said it will be up to the oil industry and government regulators to learn something from the mistakes made that day.

The University of Alaska Anchorage chancellor and former Alaska lieutenant governor was asked by President Obama in June to serve on the National Commission on the DP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Ulmer said the bipartisan commission’s job wasn’t to find fault, but instead to look at the system and determine how such a disaster could happen. She said the seven-member group unanimously agreed on the findings in its report, which calls for systemic changes by industry and government regulators.

The commission submitted a 380-page report to Obama on Jan. 11 after a six-month investigation.

“This was, in our mind, a completely preventable accident,” Ulmer said.

Ulmer said there are surprising similarities between Alaska and Louisiana, which both rely on oil, fishing and tourism as mainstays of their respective economies. She said that gave her an interesting perspective as she studied the spill and talked to Gulf residents about its impact.

Although no disaster in the Gulf had previously occurred on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon spill, problems were fairly common. From 1996 to 2009, she said, there were 79 oil rig blowouts — termed as “loss of control incidents” — in Gulf waters.

Ulmer said Norway and the United Kingdom have much more effective oversight of offshore drilling, which means a worker is four times less likely to die aboard a North Sea oil rig as one in the Gulf. She said U.S. officials shouldn’t be afraid to adopt some of those regulations.

“We can learn from peer countries,” Ulmer said. “We don’t necessarily have all the answers.”

The commission recommended that 80 percent of spill penalties paid under the Clean Water Act go back toward Gulf restoration. If that happens, she said the already-polluted Gulf coast will actually have a healthier long-term future.

It also recommends that the federal regulatory system for offshore drilling be overhauled, and that the oil industry set up a formal process for reviewing its own safety.

The report also includes recommendations specifically for Arctic waters, where offshore drilling is an ongoing controversy. It calls for more comprehensive studies of the region, added research on spill cleanup in icy conditions and a stronger Coast Guard presence in the Arctic.

“My hope is we as a nation will be able to — as we did after the Exxon Valdez oil spill — to make a difference in a positive way,” she said.

In a year, the commission plans to issue a “report card” to government and the oil industry, which will judge whether its recommendations were followed or ignored.

Ulmer said she thinks some of the changes look possible. The federal government has already begun overhauling its oversight structure, she said, and the oil industry is having discussions about forming an independent safety institute. She said Congress has also begun debating a change to the “hopelessly too low” $75 million liability cap that is currently in place for spills.

Other recommendations, like a greater commitment to federally funded oil spill research, seem like a tougher sell.

“There are things already in motion, so I’m reasonably hopeful some of these things will actually happen,” she said.

The complete report, as well as a multimedia presentation showing its findings, is available online at

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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