A guide to the many inquiries into the BP oil spill

December 15, 2010

Jeff Brady

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(Flickr/BP)
Discoverer Enterprise on the site of the Deepwater Horizon incident in May 2010.

It can be confusing to keep track of all the groups investigating the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

For example, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is holding a public hearing on the disaster Wednesday, looking at how other countries regulate offshore drilling. And its investigation is one of at least five government inquiries into the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.

So you can imagine how Michael Bromwich, the country's chief offshore regulator, feels.

"I didn't design the world of many investigations, but I have to deal with it," says Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Bromwich's agency is conducting a joint investigation with the Coast Guard. Like all the government investigations, the goal is to learn what caused the disaster, and how to prevent similar ones in the future. But each of the agencies have weaknesses that leave room for others to come in and argue they could do a better job.

President's Oil Spill Commission

This is the highest-profile investigation. It's expected to be the first to release its final report, next month.

While the commission is billed as bipartisan, it's clear the oil industry feels under-represented on it: The panel is dominated by those concerned more with the environment than making money by drilling for oil.

Some oil industry insiders will talk about their concerns off the record, but not openly. Dan Kish, senior vice president of the free-market Institute for Energy Research, thinks he knows why.

"When a cop pulls you over, you can present your papers and be nice," Kish says, "or you can start swearing at the policeman and wait for the ticket to be issued."

Oil companies don't have much to gain by complaining about the makeup of the presidential commission, Kish says. But he thinks it's surprising there are no technical experts from the oil industry on it.

Environmentalists say that would be like giving a defendant a seat on the jury.

"I think their argument is emblematic of the coziness that they might like to have with their regulators," says Jackie Savitz, senior scientist and campaign director with Oceana, "and a type of relationship that they seem to have had in the past, which may have led to some of the problems that we're beginning to understand."

Even if the commission members themselves don't, for the most part, have close ties to the oil industry, Savitz says that it's clear the commission's staff has been working closely with the industry.

Coast Guard/Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

This is another high-profile investigation, but some have questioned whether the Coast Guard and Bromwich's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management can be self-critical enough. Both agencies played roles in regulating the companies involved and in responding to the Deepwater Horizon incident.

"People will be able to see from the report whether we are tough on our own people or not," Bromwich says. "I believe that organizations have the capacity to investigate themselves."

The report from the Coast Guard/BOEM investigation is due in April, right around the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill.

National Academy of Engineering

The Department of the Interior also has asked this group to conduct its own independent investigation.

An interim report released in November concluded the crew aboard the Deepwater Horizon missed signs that there were problems. A final report is due in June.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board

This investigation has been the most controversial. The BOEM and some in the oil industry argue that deepwater oil spills just don't fall into the types of industrial chemical accidents the CSB is supposed to investigate. Differences appear to have been smoothed over for now, though the issue could still end up in court.

Some think the CSB's investigation could be valuable because the board has a lot of independence.

"Their board members are appointed to five-year terms, so they cross different administrations," says Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.

Epstein says the CSB has significant technical expertise and experience looking at a company's safety culture. "A lot of their credibility is based on their reputation and their previous work," she says.

Other Inquiries

The Department of Justice also is investigating, in case there's reason to bring criminal charges. And Congress has various inquiries open.

The big question now is whether all these separate investigations will reach similar conclusions about what caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.

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