Investigators blast Congress for inadequate Gulf spill response

Investigators who probed the 2010 Gulf oil spill blasted Congress on Wednesday for doing little to prevent a repeat of the disaster.

While federal regulators and the oil industry have made changes to boost the safety of offshore drilling, lawmakers are lagging far behind, said Bob Graham, the former co-chairman of the presidential commission that investigated the Deepwater Horizon incident.

“Because of actions taken by the administration and by industry, we can say with confidence that offshore drilling is safer than it was three years ago,” Graham said. But while lawmakers enacted one measure to distribute money for Gulf Coast restoration, “on other critical reforms, Congress has done little.”

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Graham’s comments came as the former commissioners released a scorecard grading groups in heeding their recommendations for improving the safety of offshore drilling. The group, united as “Oil Spill Commission Action,” gave Congress a D+, the administration a B and industry a B-.

When BP’s Macondo well blew out on April 20, 2010, it triggered the nation’s worst oil spill and an explosion that claimed the lives of 11 workers.


In response, the Obama administration overhauled the agencies that oversee offshore drilling, separating potential conflicts of interest, such as collecting royalties from oil and gas production and monitoring the safety of those operations.

The Interior Department also imposed new standards for the construction of subsea wells and the emergency equipment that guards them.

Federal regulators also are now requiring companies to have access to well containment systems, which two consortia developed for the Gulf of Mexico. During the 2010 spill, BP worked to develop such capping stacks on the fly.

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William Reilly, a former EPA administrator who co-chaired the commission, said that is a major industry change.

“The ability to respond effectively to spills that do occur has been significantly improved,” Reilly said. “Industry has taken to heart the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but there is still a great deal to be done.”

But Reilly said commission members were disappointed in oil companies’ slow progress in auditing the safety and environmental management systems the federal government now requires, ahead of a November deadline.

Among Congress’ biggest failings, the former commissioners said, was not passing legislation that would raise the liability limit on companies that cause oil spills or hike the amount of money companies pay into an emergency spill fund. The current cap — $75 million — is “woefully inadequate,” Graham said.

Congress also has failed to pass a bill that would codify the reorganization of the Interior Department agencies that oversee offshore drilling and require Senate confirmation of federal offshore energy regulators.

“Three years has passed since the Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 workers, and Congress has yet to pass one piece of legislation that would make offshore drilling safer,” Graham said.

Graham said Ron Wyden, the head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, seemed receptive to commission members’ concerns about the liability limit, during a recent meeting.

The group found one bright spot on Capitol Hill: passage of legislation that establishes a formal program for divvying up fine money along Gulf Coast states.

Reilly noted that in all areas, response to the three-year-old disaster is a “work in progress.”

The group also warned that the government’s budget problems — including sequestration — are paring the resources needed for agencies involved in offshore drilling.

At the same time, the former commissioners said, federal agencies and the oil industry aren’t doing enough to bolster the safety of drilling in remote Arctic waters or learn more about the biological resources in the region.