My Turn: President’s Oil Spill Commission prepares for final report


In May, President Barack Obama established the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling Commission to investigate what caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history and develop options for guarding against future spills associated with offshore drilling. I was appointed to the commission along with six others. Here’s an update on our progress.

Since July we’ve held multiple site visits in all the Gulf States, during which we met community members, small business owners, and state and local officials, held public meetings in New Orleans and Washington, D.C. and taken testimony from industry and government representatives. We’ve been provided with extensive background information and papers describing the factors that contributed to the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers, and led to an estimated 200 million gallon oil spill requiring the largest environmental cleanup in U.S. history.

The seven commission members bring a broad spectrum of expertise – engineering, oil industry, environmental science and law – to the task. We’ve worked in subcommittees to explore topics including response, restoration, regulatory oversight, corporate culture, safety and the Arctic. We will hold our last meeting Thursday and Friday before commissioners and staff work together to finalize a report that will be delivered to Obama on Jan. 11, 2011.

Commission staff released preliminary reports last week indicating the oil industry was unprepared to respond to a deepwater blowout and the federal government was also unprepared to provide sufficient cleanup supervision. Once the blowout occurred, industry and government worked quickly to develop and deploy containment and response technologies. In light of the scale of the disaster, the effort was commendable. However, the fact remains both the industry and government had been lulled in to a sense of complacency and overconfidence that was not justified.

During our Nov. 8-9 meeting, OSC staff presented the commission with a list of failures in managing the risks associated with offshore drilling. This list is almost identical to failures listed in the preliminary report subsequently released last week by the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council committee investigating the oil spill. Two totally separate investigations produced substantially the same analysis. This is validation of both investigations and reflects an emerging consensus of both causes and needed changes.

The companies’ process safety systems were inadequate, including a lack of on-rig business practices, communication and training. Numerous warning signs were ignored or misinterpreted, and the best practices used by other high risk industries (nuclear, aviation, etc.) were not in place to counterbalance the imperative to just finish the job. The lack of safety management systems create as much or greater risk than technical equipment failures, particularly in highly complex operations like deep water drilling rigs.

Improving operational safety will require several things, in my opinion, including:

  • An industry that takes an active role in improving safety culture and making technological improvements for spill prevention, containment and response.
  • Political leadership that creates incentives (both carrots and sticks) for industry to set higher standards for safe operation, instead of protecting the status quo.
  • A regulatory regime that emphasizes performance and improvement over “check the box” supervision.
  • A better resourced and better prepared regulator that focuses as much on safety as extracting oil and gas resources.

The commission holds its final public meeting in Washington, D.C., on Thursday and Friday where we will discuss recommendations and try to reach consensus. The meeting may be accessed online through The final report will also be available there in mid-January. I want to thank all of the Alaskans who have provided comments, suggestions and their personal experience with the oil industry, citizens’ advisory councils, the Coast Guard, environmental science and research, and all the complex issues facing Alaskans. I sincerely hope that we can turn this tragedy into a learning experience that improves the safety of this important industry, as we did twenty years ago after the Exxon Valdez Spill. I also hope that the Gulf of Mexico restoration efforts will be successful and long lasting. There is a lot of work to do on both counts.

Ulmer is Chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage and was appointed by the President to serve on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling Commission.

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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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