Officials discuss oversight issues, lack of science in offshore drilling

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst

The second meeting of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling highlighted both deficiencies in the Obama Administration’s and British Petroleum’s handling of the spill, as well as methods to improve coordination between those two parties.

Participants in the hearing, which occurred August 25 in Washington, DC, sought to examine regulatory oversight issues in offshore drilling. One point of consensus between both commissioners and several of the panelists was that scientific input into the review process needed to be increased.

“There isn’t a culture, and this crosses administrations, that naturally reaches out to the scientists for their participation; therefore, it would be appropriate to ask that Congress change the process,” said Commission Co-Chair Bob Graham, formerly a Florida U.S. Senator and Governor. “Scientists outside [Minerals Management Service], based on what I’ve been told, do not really think they have been adequately consulted or effectively involved in these decisions,” said Co-Chair Ben Reilly, also a former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Carter Roberts, President and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, testified during the first panel on “the need to bring science back to the table.” Roberts offered that the U.S. should adopt a drilling policy in which companies make leasing and drilling decisions only after they “map what’s in the oceans” and make smart choices on where to drill based on the scientific data collected. Roberts advocated the creation of an independent director of environmental science that would serve as a chief consultant in enacting a national oceans policy.

During the second panel, Graham questioned key federal agency heads on whether they had been consulted prior to March 31, 2010 when President Obama approved additional oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean off Alaska and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco and Nancy Sutley, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, said that, while they did offer comments about the proposal, the major decisions regarding offshore drilling were made by President Obama and Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversees U.S. oil and gas policy under federal law.

Lubchenco mentioned that there should be an environmental assessment in every step of the leasing process and that an Environmental Impact Study should be conducted in at least the last two steps of the process. Commenting on NOAA’s process of releasing timely reports on the spill, Lubchenco said “we don’t believe in withholding information. We want to get information out as quickly as we feel is responsible.”

Another panelist, Meg Caldwell, Executive Director of the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University, recommended that NOAA and similar federal entities be formally designated federal oil and gas cooperating agencies because, according to Caldwell, NOAA scientists are uniquely capable of advising the administration about environmental risks. Graham stated the panel may call for legislation to mandate that the Department of Interior work with NOAA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality when formulating policy. Caldwell also commended President Obama for his July 19, 2010 Executive Order establishing a National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts and Great Lakes.

Former directors of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) were called in to answer charges of mismanagement of its regulatory process. On MMS’s management of the BP Deepwater leasing process, Tyler Priest, Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of Global Studies at the University of Houston contested that they “accepted the plan to explore first and ask questions later, but then stop asking.”

Elizabeth Birnbaum, MMS Director from the first year of the Obama administration through May 2010, contended that the problem with MMS was more systemic, noting the problem could be rooted in the fact that many of the regulators lived in the same community as those they were charged with regulating. She stated this problem could be addressed by regular rotations of inspectors and instituting “firewalls” between regulators and their friends and family in the industry. The meeting was Birnbaum’s first public testimony since resigning from MMS a month after the spill.

Randall Luthi, MMS Director during half of the Bush administration, contended that inappropriate behavior occurred among “a minority of employees.” Both former directors agreed there needs to be a stronger scientific research investment at MMS.

Commission member Fran Ulmer, also a former Lt. Governor under former Gov. Tony Knowles (D-AK), inquired as to why there were not consistent safety standards being enforced by the oil industry. Birnbaum offered her thoughts that “any industry opposes regulation generally” and that industry resists regulation “partially because they think they know better.”

PFC Energy Chief Executive Officer J. Robinson West offered that the oil industry’s “got religion” after this event and they are “moving very quickly” towards closing the response time after a spill.

Joe Leimkuhler, Offshore Well Delivery Manager for Shell Oil suggested that the key to an effective emergency response system is a series of safety reviews that consistently offer constructive critique and recommendations for improvement. “The one thing I don’t want to hear is ‘everything is fine,’” he said.

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling was established on May 21, 2010 by President Obama. The bipartisan commission is tasked with determining the cause of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster and “providing recommendations on how the United States can prevent and mitigate the impact of any future spills that result from offshore drilling.” Their final report is due out by January 2011.

Photo Credit: Tim Thomson

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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