Get tough on Big Oil


Two back-to-back headlines this week about the presidential commission investigating the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico sent conflicting messages. The seven-member panel, co-chaired by former Florida senator Bob Graham and former EPA administrator William Reilly, is probing the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 crew members and spewed millions of gallons of crude from the blown-out well into the Gulf.

The first headline, Panel: BP didn’t favor $ over safety on Nov. 9, topped a story in which the panel’s chief investigator said that, among preliminary findings, there is no evidence that “a decision-making person or group of people sat there aware of safety risks, aware of costs and opted to give up safety for costs.” This challenges the common view that BP and the other firms involved, Transocean and Halliburton, cut corners to save money, which led to the explosion.

The article beneath the Nov. 10 headline, Panel chairmen spread blame among firms, has Messrs. Graham and Reilly saying that the panel found a “culture of complacency” rather than a “culture of safety.”

They said all three companies were to blame. As for the chief investigator’s statement, Mr. Reilly said that the group “didn’t rule out cost, they just weren’t prepared to attribute mercenary motives to men who cannot speak for themselves because they are not alive.” Nevertheless, he continued, “there was one bad call after another.”

Mr. Reilly also called for “top-to-bottom” reform of the companies’ drilling operations. So, plenty of mistakes led to the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. And these are just the panel’s preliminary findings. Its full report is due in January.

But the preliminary findings should be enough to push the U.S. Senate into approving legislation that will impose many reforms on both the oil industry and the government agencies that regulate it. The U.S. House passed the bill this year but the Senate delayed it, not too surprisingly. Only two Republicans voted for the House bill, which likely means its only chance of passing the Senate is if a vote is set during the lame-duck session. If it fails in the Senate this year the whole process will have to start from scratch again.

And it should be passed. For starters it would lift the liability cap on oil companies that cause spills in U.S. waters. In 1990, lawmakers capped liability at $75 million — way too low.

Even BP acknowledged as much when it set up a $20 billion compensation fund for Gulf spill victims.

The bill — the Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act — would direct fines that the three companies may be assessed to be spent in Gulf states. Other provisions aim to improve federal and state responses to future spills and reform regulation of the oil and gas leasing and permitting processes as well as tighten government oversight of drilling activities.

The nation was appalled as television showed the oil spewing from the busted well day after day this summer. No one wants a repeat performance. The Senate must step up and get tough on Big Oil and lax regulators.

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

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