Oil Spill Panel Calls for New Rules and Spending


WASHINGTON — The presidential panel investigating the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico recommended on Tuesday that Congress approve substantial new spending and sweeping new regulations for offshore oil operations at a time when the appetite for both are low.

Releasing its final report, the commission found that the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill arose from a preventable series of corporate and regulatory failures. It warned that unless industry practices and government regulation improve, another such accident is inevitable.

“If dramatic steps are not taken,” said Bob Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida and co-chairman of the commission, “I’m afraid at some point in the coming years another failure will occur, and we will wonder why did the Congress, why did the administration, why did the industry allow this to happen again.”

The oil industry reacted warily to the report, saying that companies with good safety records should not be subjected to costly new rules and warning that a major new set of regulations would slow production and drive up prices. Drillers also objected to a recommendation by the commission that the current $75 million cap on liability for accidents be raised by an unspecified amount.

Republicans in Congress have blocked any new rules for offshore drilling and new spending for regulation and have not acted on proposals to raise the liability cap. There is little sign that these will be high priorities when lawmakers reconvene.

Mr. Graham and the panel’s other co-chairman, William K. Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, expressed confidence that Congress and the Obama administration would act on the panel’s numerous recommendations, despite strong antiregulatory sentiment in the new Congress.

Mr. Graham said that he believed the horror of the accident and its aftermath would prove a powerful incentive to act this year, even in a new Congress leery of strong federal action.

“I believe it will override an ideological preference for less government, less government intrusion, less cost,” he said. “This is not just government regulating private enterprises. This is government regulating lands and resources that the American people own.”

Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, said Tuesday they would introduce legislation incorporating many of the commission’s recommendations, including raising the ceiling on damages.

The Republican House members Doc Hastings of Washington, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, and Fred Upton of Michigan, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, told the panel that they would study its report and propose legislation if appropriate.

The members of the commission briefed President Obama on their findings on Tuesday. They noted that their report and recommendations were adopted unanimously and that their work had been completed within a six-month deadline the president set last May.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said in a statement, “In keeping with the series of recommendations included in the commission report, our administration has already taken important steps to implement aggressive new reforms for the offshore oil and gas industry.” Mr. Gibbs said the administration would take the panel’s additional recommendations into account as it adopts additional changes.

“The mistakes and oversights by industry as well as government must not be repeated,” he said.

The commission’s 380-page report provides the most detailed accounting yet of what went wrong aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the years of neglect of safety and environmental protection that preceded the April 20 blowout, which left 11 men dead and spilled 200 million gallons of oil into the gulf. The report is scathing in its indictment of industry for failing to prepare adequate plans to respond to a major spill and of government for decades of lax regulation of an industry that essentially operated without any meaningful federal oversight.

The report lays most of the blame for the Deepwater Horizon accident on the three companies responsible for drilling the well — BP, Transocean and Halliburton. But the commissioners found what they described as “systemic” problems across the industry that needed to be addressed.

They recommended the creation of an industry-financed safety board, like those that help oversee operations in the chemical and nuclear industries, and an independent monitoring office within the Department of Interior whose director serves a set term and is not answerable to the secretary.

The commission undertook its study without benefit of subpoena powers, under a tight deadline and without access to a number of critical components, like the well’s failed blowout preventer. Because of those flaws, the report leaves a number of mysteries yet to be unraveled, including why the men aboard the rig made the fateful decisions they made in the hours and minutes before the explosion.

Among the unanswered questions are why the blowout preventer failed, why workers aboard the rig failed to react to signs of rising gas in the well bore, why the explosive gas was not diverted overboard and why other safety systems were not activated earlier. Nor did the report address the potential culpability of senior executives of the three companies.

Several other inquiries are continuing, including a Justice Department criminal and civil investigation. The companies face extensive private litigation as well by the families of the dead and injured and by hundreds of Gulf Coast business owners affected by the spill.

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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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