President Obama, Give the Spill Investigation the Right Mandate

I am pleased the Obama Administration has announced that two experienced and fair-minded figures will head up his independent commission to investigate the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. On May 4, we sent a letter to the President urging him to take launch an investigation, and I appreciate that he has responded.

Former Senator Bob Graham was raised in the Everglades and has been a champion of responsible environmental protections as governor of Florida and in the U.S. Senate. As Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he co-sponsored legislation overhauling the intelligence community in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He is well equipped to assess this disaster and recommend needed change.

William Reilly served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency for four years under President George H.W. Bush. Prior to that, he was president of the World Wildlife Fund and The Conservation Foundation. As president and CEO of Aqua International Partners, Reilly overseas international investments in water purification and wastewater management in developing countries.

Both men have demonstrated the expertise and the commitment to environmental protection needed to ensure the success of this commission's vital work.

But it’s essential that the commission be given the right mandate. As I told the New York Times, the commission must review whether, when, and where offshore drilling should occur.

In order to do that, it must have a broad and wide-ranging charge. That is the only way to ensure the commission is free to make credible and comprehensive recommendations on how to prevent future disasters and protect our oceans and coastlines.

On Friday, NRDC sent another letter to President Obama elaborating on what the commission should be asked to do. Specifically, it should address three sets of issues.

1. The causes of the disaster and the adequacy of the response. The problems that led to the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon, the loss of 11 lives, and the massive oil leak cannot be solved if they are not fully understood. This means not only exploring the mechanical causes of the blowout, but also understanding the systemic regulatory failures that seem to have made such an event more likely and more damaging.

The commission must also look at everything from the way standards for equipment and operations are written and enforced to the way leasing, exploration plans, and production plans are evaluated and approved. It should also evaluate the response to determine whether BP and the government had effective procedures in place to contain and clean up the oil, protect public health and the environment, keep the public informed and carry out their legal responsibilities related to liability.

2. The regulatory changes needed to strengthen environmental protection and prevent future disasters. The commission should be charged with making specific recommendations on how to change statutes, regulations, and monitoring and enforcement procedures. This should include procedures designed to prevent blowouts and other oil spills, both acute and chronic. And it should include the systems that must be in place to enable both oil companies and the government to respond adequately when such events do occur.

3. The guidelines for siting offshore drilling. The commission should recommend the criteria the government should use when deciding whether, where, and how seismic exploration and offshore drilling should be allowed to occur, given the risks these activities pose. These recommendations should inform the Administration’s broader efforts to implement a more comprehensive ocean policy that would increase the protection of our oceans.

As we await the commission’s report and recommendations, the administration should place a moratorium on all new oil drilling activities--including the drilling planned in the Arctic this summer. The current broken system is not capable of ensuring the safety of new offshore drilling activities, especially in challenging and extremely vulnerable environments like the Arctic Ocean.  No one can claim at this point to be ignorant of the extent of the risks moving forward.

I realize that the investigation we are suggesting would be extensive and require a variety of expertise. But the continuing crisis in the Gulf has demonstrated beyond any doubt that every aspect of our system of regulating oil exploration is broken. We need a thorough enough review so we can learn how to start over.