The latest probe into last year's Gulf of Mexico blowout and oil spill -- a federal report that blames much of the disaster on poor management decisions by BP PLC -- has elicited strong but varied responses on Capitol Hill, but its chances of prompting immediate legislative action remain slim.
The highly anticipated report from the Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement is the latest in a string of investigations that probed the causes of the April 2010 blowout that killed 11 rig workers and sparked the nation's worst oil spill (Greenwire, Sept. 14). Only a handful of other investigations are still ongoing. Those include probes by the U.S. Chemical and Hazard Investigation Board, the National Academy of Engineering and the Justice Department.
The report released yesterday was expected to be less politically volatile than a report released in January by the independent commission that President Obama appointed to investigate the disaster. Indeed, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill -- including Doc Hastings, the Washington Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee -- had refused to work on oil spill-response legislation until the new report was released.
But now, with an already-crowded fall legislative calendar and an election year looming, political will to advance spill-response legislation appears to have waned.
Indeed, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee who previously led the charge to pass comprehensive oil spill-response legislation, in his reaction to the report praised the Interior Department for making a series of offshore drilling safety reforms, but his only charge for Congress is to beef up funding for BOEMRE.
"This report concludes that specific regulations were violated by the companies involved and recommends more stringent regulation to ensure safe operations. I am glad that the Department of the Interior already has taken many of the steps recommended by the investigation, including reorganization of the agency responsible for oversight of these operations and issuance of more stringent safety rules," Bingaman said in a statement.
"A key issue going forward, though, is whether Congress will provide the funding needed by regulators to enforce these safety rules and to prevent violations such as the ones that caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster," he added. "As Deepwater Horizon has demonstrated, the costs to the country of unsafe oil and gas operations -- in human and in economic terms -- are enormous."
Earlier this summer, Bingaman held a markup on oil spill-response legislation that he and the committee's ranking Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska had agreed upon. But that bill was held up as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) refused to support it without the addition of language that would require the federal government to share some of the revenue from offshore drilling activities with coastal states. Bingaman is adamantly opposed to revenue sharing.
On the House side, Hastings has scheduled a hearing on the report's findings next week. But he stopped short of promising any legislative action.
"This is another significant report on the disaster, and I'm hopeful it will give us a clearer picture about what happened so Congress, industry and the administration can move forward responsibly and appropriately," Hastings said in a statement. "I'm confident that with a far more complete reporting of the facts, we will be able to take a thoughtful approach to real reforms to ensure continued safe American energy production."
But at least one lawmaker is continuing to call for a congressional response.
"The facts are now in, and now it is time to take action and implement comprehensive reforms to ensure this kind of accident never occurs again in U.S. waters," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee said. "Nearly one year after BP's Macondo well was declared 'dead,' this report shows that we still need a resurrection of attention paid to the safety of our offshore oil industry."
Markey also urged Hastings to invite the executives from the companies involved in the disaster to participate in next week's hearing. Hastings has asked the members of the government's investigation team to testify before the committee.
"We need to hear from the investigators, but we also need to hear from those being investigated," Markey said. "Congress and the American people deserve a full hearing on the facts of this spill that affected millions of American citizens and countless small businesses on the Gulf Coast."
Since last Fall, Markey has been on a quest to bring the executives from BP, Transocean Ltd. and Halliburton Co. to testify on Capitol Hill about the disaster and offshore drilling safety reform. The executives have repeatedly declined the invitation.
For its part, the oil industry is confident that it is already complying with many of the reforms and recommendations highlighted in the new -- and previous -- reports.
"The recommendations made in this report are a testament to the industry's ability to act deliberately, effectively, quickly and with an emphasis on continuous improvement," Andy Radford, API's senior policy adviser, said in a statement, adding that industry task forces thoroughly examined offshore drilling safety following the disaster and made recommendations to Interior and other agencies.
"Continued improvement on offshore safety is an industry priority and we work towards constant improvement through industry standards and recommended practices," Radford added. "This is why the Joint Industry Task Forces have remained intact to date. API and the Task Forces will thoroughly review all recommendations."