Oil Commission Report Provides Political Cover for BP and the Rest of the Oil Industry


Any kid, or for that matter anyone who’s ever been a kid, knows that if you screw up it’s best to tell mommy or daddy your story first, especially if other grownups are going to have a different tale to tell later on. And so it goes with President Obama’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, which will leave undisputed the Washington adage that “the longer the name, the more political the commission.”

It’s going to the first of several major investigative reports, and even before it was released today the findings were debated in terms of impact and accuracy. But we already know the key elements – it makes a lot of noise but essentially lets BP off the hook, painting instead an industry-wide case for increased regulation. Like the infamous NOAA “oil’s all gone” claim, the top-line findings of the report, as they’ve been leaked, will no doubt be hard to defend once we get all the details.

I’m guessing that’s why a small part was leaked in advance – a bit of top-spin. Make no mistake, there will be plenty of heat but little light because this is, at its heart, an intensely political document hammered out in an intensely political environment.

In an interesting “curtain raiser” piece by Jonathan Tilove in the Times-Picayune, we get this: “Outside the Gulf region, the public has moved on,” said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at California’s Claremont McKenna College. “The administration took a big political hit from the disaster and it’s not eager to wallow in oily waters.”

And, later, Mr. Tilove has this from Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, who was a regular on Anderson Cooper’s 360 program at the apex of spill coverage: “It’s going to be the reliable source on the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history… this is the gold standard of what happened, and it could have a profound effect on a lot of Obama administration policies.”

Setting aside what I think is one of the most serious flaws in the commission’s investigation – lack of subpoena power, and thus the inability to compel people to testify – it will certainly add to what we know about the Deepwater Horizon. But, frankly, it’s already proven to be a carefully crafted position paper of sorts, and let’s remember that the BP stock price climbed when chapters of the report were released to begin the spin cycle.

“Meanwhile,” wrote Mr. Tilove, “the industry is already dismissing the findings as overboard and overwrought. Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, said last week that most Americans agreed with the industry view that the BP disaster was an ‘isolated incident.'”

And Louisiana Oil and Gas Association President Don Briggs hit the key talking point, which the Times-Picayune piece, no doubt accurately, said he recited: “The root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.”

Then Briggs added dryly, “Well, we’ve only drilled 2,500 deepwater wells in the Gulf without this happening before.”

That statement clearly indicates the strategy of Big Oil. And it clearly indicates that the presidential commission report will give the industry plenty of political and even legal cover going forward. This was not an adversarial proceeding – how could it be when people didn’t have to testify if they didn’t want to? Mr. Brinkley is, of course right, it will become a foundation document. Now we’ll see what other investigations and independent research – and eventually lawsuits – build upon that foundation.

Here’s the Times-Picayune piece: http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2011/01/oil_spill_commission_report_co.html

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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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