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Spill Commission Says Oversight, Regulation Needed

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The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill said Tuesday that the federal government needs to beef up oversight of the offshore oil and gas industry. The seven-member committee released a set of 15 major recommendations in its final report.

The commission has already had harsh words for the oil and gas industry and its role in last April’s deadly blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. But in releasing its final recommendations, commission co-chair, Bob Graham, said industry alone was not responsible for the catastrophe.

“I’m sad to say that part of the answer is the fact that our government let it happen,” Graham said. “Our regulators were consistently outmatched. The Department of Interior lacked the in-house expertise to effectively enforce regulation.”

One of the committee’s biggest recommendations is to revamp that part of the Department of the Interior. That means, among other things, getting a safety office to rely more on science in its decisions, to pay enough to attract top-rate technical people and to be more independent than it is right now.

Separate Revenue From Regulation

Commission co-chair Bill Reilly noted that in the aftermath of the spill, the Department of the Interior did split in two its Minerals Management Service to separate the revenue-collecting arm from its regulatory arm.

“That is a move to the good,” Reilly said. “We support that, and respect it. We think it’s not enough.”

Instead, Reilly said the safety and environment office should be better insulated from economic and political pressures. One way to do that is to have a director appointed for a set term and therefore be less vulnerable to changing political winds.

“We think for the long term that is the only way to ensure that revenues do not again become excessively influential in decisions relating to non-revenue items such as safety and environment,” Reilly said.

One goal of this office should be to raise the safety and environmental standards expected of the industry. The commission found that Norway and the United Kingdom now have stricter regulations and a better safety record.

‘The Industry Was Not Prepared For This’

Randall Luthi, president of National Ocean Industries Association, didn’t dispute that assertion directly, but he disagrees with the commission’s conclusion that problems are systematic throughout the nation’s oil and gas industry.

“You look back over all history of the Gulf of Mexico, and you see that it’s a remarkable industry with a remarkable safety record,” Luthi says. “And I think the commission didn’t just give enough play for that.”

But one commissioner, Terry Garcia, said it’s clear that the failures here weren’t simply the bad decisions on the rig that led up to the deadly blowout.

“What was not in doubt and what is not disputed is that the industry was not prepared for this,” Garcia said.

Nobody had the necessary gear in place to bring the blowout under control quickly or to capture the oil as it spread through and across the waters of the Gulf.

Co-chair Graham, a former senator from Florida, said Congress will need to act in order to institute some of these recommendations, and he is optimistic that it will, even in a political climate that’s increasingly hostile to federal regulation.

“What makes that level of optimism, I think, credible is the fact that members of Congress understand that this is not just a typical example of government regulating a private enterprise. This is government regulating land that the government and the people of the United States own.”

And Graham hopes the commission’s report will turn out to be a guide to better stewardship. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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