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Energy / Energy

High Drama Expected at Gulf Spill Hearing

Environmentalists make desperate effort to get Congress to act.

The damaged blow out preventer along with the Lower Marine Riser Package cap from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.(Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas M. Blue/U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

photo of Coral Davenport
November 8, 2010

The White House-appointed panel charged with probing the Gulf of Mexico spill disaster holds the only public hearing on its findings today, as green groups launch a last-ditch push aimed at getting Congress to crack down on offshore drilling in a lame-duck session.

The coming weeks likely represent the final window for action on drilling reform for at least the next two years. Next year, any such efforts will almost certainly be blocked by anti-regulatory Republicans with an incoming majority in the House and expanding numbers in the Senate.

The push will put the spotlight back on the BP explosion. Today and Tuesday, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling will present the results of its investigation into the causes of the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and sent 185 million gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf. The hearing will be staged to maximize public attention: It will include an hour-long animated presentation that reconstructs the 60 minutes leading up to the explosion, described by people who have seen it as “the most thorough examination of the events that led up to the disaster, happening before our eyes.”  It will reveal details about decisions made by BP, Halliburton and Transocean, the three companies implicated in the disaster, in the days and hours before the explosion.   

 

It will include a prosecutorial questioning of BP, Halliburton and Transocean officials by the commission’s chief counsel, Fred Bartlit, the aggressive trial lawyer who played a major role in investigating the Piper Alpha North Sea Oil Platform disaster in 1989, considered world’s worst oil rig explosion disaster before the Gulf spill. It will include a presentation on the sheer force of the moment when the blowout occurred: 550 tons of pressure slamming into the rig floor at 80 miles per hour.

It will include rigorous questioning of the culture of safety within the oil industry, including witness appearances by the president of Shell Oil, Marvin Odum, and the CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson. It will include specific recommendations for regulations to crack down on offshore drilling and prevent similar disasters, aligned with recommendations already proposed by the Interior Department.

It should draw plenty of attention, but it won't necessarily prod lawmakers into action.

In the summer, with the oil spewing and the pressure of midterm election campaign, Senate Democrats were unable to corral enough support for a measure to increase safety and environmental regulations on offshore oil drilling. When they return to Washington in a week, most will have little appetite to take up the fight again, say aides. And even if they do, there is very little time on the legislative calendar. Financing government operations and finding a compromise on the Bush tax cuts should dominate the lame-duck session.

Environmental groups still aren’t giving up. Several organizations kick off a drilling-reform campaign this week timed to dovetail with the publicity from the spill commission’s hearing – and the last week lawmakers are in their home districts before returning to Washington. The Pew Environment Group, Ocean Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife and National Audubon Society are running a print ad campaign emphasizing the economic impact of the spill on Gulf coast communities. The ad, which reads “Mission: Not Accomplished” is set to run in The Miami Herald, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., and Nashville's Tennessean. On Wednesday, the day after the presidential panel completes its hearings, the Pew Environment Group will unveil a report highlighting the likelihood and dangers of such a spill in Arctic waters, as part of an effort to press Congress to prevent drilling from going forward off the coast of Alaska.       

“We’re really hoping the Senate will find space on its schedule. They can’t afford not to do it,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of offshore energy reform policy for the Pew Environment Group. “For them to say there’s not enough time to make sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes that happened in the Gulf would be very detrimental to the people who live in the Gulf and people who live anywhere  there will be offshore drilling. If you just enact regulations, but don’t put it in legislation, it can be undone by a future Congress.”

The green groups point out that drilling reform legislation is already close to the finish line in Congress: the Interior Department has already unveiled new regulations, many of which were included in a robust drilling reform bill that passed the House over the summer. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee also moved a bipartisan bill that would increase oversight over offshore drilling. But oil-state Democrats were divided over a broader Senate package that would have removed a cap on the liabilities oil companies would be required to pay in the event of future disasters.   

While the spill commission hearing is unlikely to lead to lead to drilling legislation anytime soon, it should give a clear indication of the likely contents of the panel’s final report, due on the president’s desk in January. Already, however, energy policy insiders are comparing the likely impact of the spill commission report to that of the 9/11 Commission report: likely to generate much publicity and condemnation of key decision-makers – but unlikely to lead to fundamental changes in policy.  

“The recommendations will have a lot of weight,” Heiman said. “But as the oil spill fades from people’s minds, it will become more and more difficult to do anything.”

 

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