Panel Is Unlikely to End Deepwater Drilling Ban Early


WASHINGTON — The bipartisan commission named by President Obama in May to study the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the future of American offshore drilling will hold its first formal meeting in mid-July at the earliest, most likely delaying the delivery of its final report into next year, a co-chairman of the panel said Friday in an interview.

The co-chairman, William K. Reilly, who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under the first President George Bush, also said it was unlikely that the panel would recommend the lifting of the six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling before it completed its report. Such a move would require profound changes in industry practice and government oversight that could not be done that quickly, Mr. Reilly said in his first extensive remarks on the commission’s work.

The oil industry, its supporters in Congress and Gulf Coast officials have called for swiftly lifting the moratorium, saying that the ban was causing severe economic hardship and that drilling could resume safely under tighter interim rules. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and some other Obama administration officials had given the industry hope that the ban would be lifted as soon as new regulations were in place.

But Mr. Reilly said that ending the moratorium would require that the industry adopt safer drilling techniques and that the government regulatory agencies, particularly the Minerals Management Service, a part of the Interior Department, be markedly strengthened.“Those things would have to happen faster than past history would suggest is possible,” he said.

He also noted that a Congressional hearing last week revealed that the five major oil companies relied on a common and clearly inadequate plan for responding to a major offshore spill.

“I would be very wary of encouraging more deep-water development until I was confident that the response plans were more realistic,” Mr. Reilly said in the telephone interview. “They are not realistic at this time.”

Mr. Reilly has taken a leave from the board of ConocoPhillips, one of the oil companies whose chief executives testified before Congress last week.

Mr. Obama set a six-month deadline for the panel to produce its report, but the clock does not begin until the seven-member body officially meets. The group’s start has been set back by delays in naming the other five members and by a complicated White House vetting process for staff members.

On Monday evening, a senior administration official said Richard J. Lazarus, a Georgetown University law professor and a former Justice Department environmental law specialist, would be the panel’s executive director.

Mr. Obama named the two co-chairmen, Mr. Reilly and former Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, on May 22. But the White House did not designate the other five members until June 14. They are Frances G. Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; Terry D. Garcia, an executive vice president at the National Geographic Society; Cherry A. Murray, dean of the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Frances Ulmer, chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The panel as yet has no staff or budget, although the White House has requested $15 million from Congress for the group.

Mr. Obama said that the mandate of the commission was to find the causes of the BP disaster and to make recommendations for preventing such accidents in the future. The president was explicit, both in public comments and in private statements to him and to Mr. Graham, Mr. Reilly said, that the United States would depend for the foreseeable future on oil and natural gas from beneath the Gulf of Mexico. The investigative panel is not charged with determining whether offshore oil development can be conducted safely; rather, its mission is to show how it can resume with greater safeguards.

“The president was clear,” Mr. Reilly said. “He was not inviting us to revise his energy policy. He said he was much more concerned to look ahead than look backward.”

Mr. Reilly said he expected his group to examine the reliability of blowout preventers, the toxicity of dispersants, the quality and frequency of inspections, and the possible need for simultaneous relief wells in deep water.

Officials with experience in earlier investigative panels said it was essential to understand why the Deepwater Horizon accident happened before meaningful recommendations could be made about future actions.

Bruce Babbitt, who served on the commission that investigated the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 and later was President Bill Clinton’s interior secretary, said the entire culture of the offshore drilling industry would have to change.

“You have to strengthen regulation,” Mr. Babbitt said, “but there has to be some way of implanting some safety DNA across the entire industry.”

The Three Mile Island panel’s recommendations led to the creation of a nuclear safety institute that trains plant operators and inspectors. Mr. Babbitt said something similar might be needed in the oil and gas industry.

He also said that the Minerals Management Service should be blown apart, not merely restructured, as Mr. Salazar has proposed. Environmental regulation must be taken out of the Interior Department and transferred to the E.P.A., Mr. Babbitt said.

Philip D. Zelikow, who served as executive director of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, urged the new panel to follow his group’s path by writing a narrative history of the gulf accident. That is the best way, Mr. Zelikow said, to understand the factors that led to the disaster and to generate public and political support for the changes that will be needed to prevent a recurrence.

“To explain is not necessarily to excuse,” he said, “but it is the first step in understanding.”

He said that in studying previous disasters, like the shuttle Challenger explosion, he learned that government agencies and private corporations engaged in cutting-edge endeavors, like deep-sea drilling or space exploration, began over time to “normalize” and discount the risk.

“Here is an industry increasingly obliged to engage in ultrahazardous activity,” Mr. Zelikow said. “I wouldn’t look just at BP. They are functioning in a much larger institutional culture. Everyone who worked on this rig has worked on other projects, maybe at other companies. What you want to discover is if there is something distinct and pathological about all of these institutions, or something distinctly pathological about BP.”

He added that it might be impossible for Mr. Reilly and the other commissioners to avoid the question of whether deep-water drilling should be pursued at all before recommending how it could resume, even though that matter was beyond their presidential mandate.

“I don’t think you can answer one question without answering the other,” Mr. Zelikow said.

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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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