Obama’s Oil Spill Commission Fails to Hold BP Fully Accountable; Means Little for Future Litigation Against the Oil Giant


Motivation is always a difficult thing to prove – a legal reality we see emerging from the presidential spill commission. Although it’s stealing many of the headlines, the opinion of the commission that BP did not cut safety corners to boost profits means very little in the grand scheme of things.

As I told Bloomberg News for their coverage of the story, the presidential report is “not going to change anything because the presidential commission’s findings are not going to be admissible at any trial. From our engineers’ reviews of the documents so far, it is clear that profit motives played a part in every aspect of this well.”

For one thing, you don’t just look at what officials claim their motives were. Instead, you look at what actions they took. When you take that approach, it doesn’t look good for BP. In case after case – from well design to engineering execution to taking time for tests – the factual record shows that making money (lots of it) ruled the day. While BP wants desperately to move beyond that issue, it’s still front and center, because it speaks to the issue of “gross negligence,” which translates into billions more in fines. And let’s remember, the BP spill was hardly an isolated incident for a company with a long, well-documented history of safety violations.

Beyond the headlines, another interesting detail emerged from the preliminary announcement. The commission’s co-chairman Bob Graham, the former Florida senator, says the panel will return to Congress this month to seek subpoena power. A cynic might wonder if by making a pro-BP statement, the commission figures the Republicans will remove their block on subpoena power.

It’s unusual for presidential commissions to lack the ability to compel testimony, and with a final report due early next year, the limitations of voluntary witnesses will be evident. But my guess is that the GOP knows better than to turn Sen. Graham loose with subpoenas so the Republicans will continue to keep this commission operating as nothing more than “investigation lite.”

In part that’s because Graham hints that the current all-clear spin on BP might not hold up, telling CNN: “There seemed to be a compulsion to get this rig completed in that April 19th-April 20th time period.”

The Bloomberg report is here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-08/oil-spill-commission-so-far-finds-no-evidence-bp-hurried-work-to-save-cash.html

The CNN report, which is less BP-friendly, is here: http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/11/09/gulf.oil.disaster/index.html?section=cnn_latest

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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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