At National Oil Spill Commission Meeting, We Share Our Preliminary Findings

The National Oil Spill Commissioners shared our preliminary conclusions on Friday about the root causes of the BP oil disaster and the best ways to safeguard America against future spills. Though our final report will not be released until January, our initial findings have taken shape.

Over the course of the past six months, the commission has investigated the actions of BP, Halliburton, and Transocean. Through this process, we detected a broadly sweeping and deeply embedded problem that transcends the actions of specific companies: we found systemic regulatory and industry failure to protect the American public’s interest.

There simply has not been adequate oversight or investment in oil spill response and containment.

Specifically, we found that government oversight had not kept up with the complexity of drilling in the deep water. Meanwhile, the oil industry, unlike other high-risk venture such as aviation and nuclear power, had not developed industry-wide performance standards to promote best practices in increasingly perilous and fragile environments such as the deep water and the Arctic.

In the case of the Macondo well, the three companies also routinely failed to communicate critical information about problems they were encountering. During our meeting this week, Richard Sears, who is a senior science and engineering adviser to the commission with three decades of experience in the energy industry, said:

They were not always sharing information, calling in experts, engaging. And there are many instances where they did not share information from operator to contractor. And certainly between contractors, information was not being shared. And as a result, individuals were making very important decisions about the operations, about the safety, of what was happening on the rig. They are making these decisions without fully appreciating the context in which they were being made, or even the importance of a particular decision.

Such patterns must change, and the commission will offer specific recommendations on how this should be done, including regulatory changes, legislative changes, and changes in industry practice.

The commission also concluded that the balance envisioned in the Outer Continental Shelf Act between extracting oil and considering other values of the ocean ecosystem has not been achieved.  

In the wake of the Macondo blowout and in light of the new National Ocean Policy announced in July 2010, we propose that competing values of the marine environment receive heightened scrutiny before leasing decisions are made. Stronger environmental reviews must be conducted at each stage of Outer Continental Shelf activities. And finally, these assessments must involve not only staffers from the Department of the Interior, but also experts at the nation's premier ocean agency, NOAA. 

The commission recognizes that the growing competition over ocean resources—and the drive to venture into ever deeper and more fragile waters—is fueled by America’s insatiable appetite for oil. 

For four decades, the Outer Continental Shelf leasing program has been conducted in the absence of a coherent national energy policy that examines how to reduce our oil dependence with more fuel efficient cars, electric and plug in hybrid cars, increased public transportation and biofuels.  

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is yet another reminder that America needs to develop and agree upon a 21st century energy policy that reduces our oil addiction.

We already know what the failure to do so looks like. Every two decades, we experience an oil catastrophe that we are ill equipped to deal with.  Each one, from Santa Barbara to Exxon Valdez to the Macondo well, represents orders of magnitude increases in the amount of oil spilled and response required. The public needs to be assured that the oil industry will be prepared for and invest in the technology necessary to contain a worst-case spill like we saw in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

And finally, the commission has concluded that we need to take a precautionary approach to drilling in the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic is an extremely vulnerable environment and one that presents major challenges for drilling and clean up technology. There is much we don’t know about responding to spills in this setting, and we must take the time necessary to close the research gaps as soon as possible.

I have been honored to serve on the National Oil Spill Commission, and I am grateful to all those who helped with our investigation and attended public hearing in the Gulf.

Together, we have begun to shape recommendations that will help America prevent another oil spill tragedy. Our January report will offer our final conclusions and the roadmap for how we can achieve this.