The presidential commission investigating the BP oil spill performed a valuable public service by issuing a clear, unsparing report Tuesday detailing how industry and the government contributed to the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history. The panel singled out BP and its business partners for a series of mistakes that caused 206 million gallons of oil to spew into the Gulf of Mexico last year. But the commission also found that the government lacked any real capacity to ensure the safety of offshore drilling operations — or to adequately respond to a crisis. The report should be a wakeup call to industry, the government and the American people.
The panel, co-chaired by former Florida Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, concluded no single act caused the April 20 explosion of the offshore drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon. Instead, it cited a series of mistakes by BP, which owned the drilling rights; Transocean, which owned the Deepwater rig; and Halliburton, the oil services giant responsible for cementing the Macondo well, "that reveal such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry."
The commission found that engineers misread readings that would have indicated pressure building in the well. Crews failed to anticipate weaknesses in the integrity of the cementing job. Operators on the rig did not have vital information in the runup to the explosion, and safety protocols collapsed in the ensuing chaos. The panel found that the blowout, which killed 11 people and seriously injured many others, "could have been prevented." Instead, the report says, "the business culture succumbed to a false sense of security."
President Barack Obama formed the commission in May, and its members did a yeoman's job to dissect what happened and recommend ways to avoid another disaster. But some of the sharpest criticism was reserved the government itself. The panel blamed the White House and Congress for failing to adequately fund the federal government's oversight of the offshore drilling industry. The agency formerly in charge, the Minerals Management Service, and the Coast Guard lacked the staff, resources and know-how to oversee the drilling industry.
The panel recommended a series of steps that are essential if the nation is to continue to heavily rely on deepwater drilling. Congress and the administration should create an independent safety office within the Interior Department to oversee the safety of offshore drilling operations. The newly formed agency that succeeded the MMS, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, needs more resources to beef up its staff and increase its technical expertise. The Coast Guard and the government's chief scientific arm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also need more money to track and contain spills.
The commission did Florida and its neighbors a particular service by pointing out the gulf ecosystem is "a unique American asset" and by reaffirming that the environmental impact of the spill will be felt for decades. It reasonably called on Congress to lift the $75 million federal cap on damages related to offshore spills and recommended most of any fines collected from the BP disaster be directed toward restoring the gulf waters that were affected. Tuesday's report sets an ambitious agenda for industry and lawmakers in Washington — and gives the public a scorecard to track.