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BP spill report underscores government complacency

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A presidentially-appointed commission today called for major changes in offshore oil drilling and described the Deepwater Horizon spill as “almost the inevitable result of years of industry and government complacency and lack of attention to safety.” Some conclusions echo the Center for Public Integrity’s own findings about drillers’ reliance on inadequate technology and plans to prevent spills, “chronic” hazardous conditions for workers, and confusion over who takes charge when a fire breaks out.

The 398 page final report of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling provides a detailed analysis of the events that led to the release of millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico in April. William K. Reilly, one of the commission’s co-chairs, warned that if specific actions are not “taken by Congress, by the Administration and by industry to reduce the likelihood of a similar tragedy…the probability of another failure will be dramatically greater.”

The report describes BPs preparedness plan, meant to detail how to cope with a spill, as “embarrassing.” The plan listed as a consultant in the event of an emergency a wildlife expert who had died several years before. The plan also warned of dangers to “seals and walruses” — neither of which lives in the Gulf. One website highlighted by BP as a resource to help with cleanup efforts linked to a “Japanese entertainment site.”

Spill prevention technology available to the company also was not up to the task. “While production technology had made great advances since Exxon Valdez, spill response technology had not,” the commission concluded. As the Center previously reported, specialists in spill prevention have called the technology antiquated. “The [cleanup] technology that’s being used on the surface is over 30 years old,” Jerome Milgram, a professor of marine technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Center in May.

A Center story about BP, “Renegade Refiner”, found that BP was responsible for 97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years. “BP’s safety lapses have been chronic,” noted the commission’s report, which found that “despite the improvement in injury and spill rates during that decade, BP has caused a number of disastrous or potentially disastrous workplace incidents.” The company lacks a “consistent and reliable” way of managing risks, the commission added.

The report also touches briefly on confused firefighting efforts following the Deepwater explosion, which some scholars of the oil industry have speculated led to the sinking of the rig. The commission noted “confusion about whether Transocean, the Coast Guard, the salvage company, or anyone at all was directing the firefighting operations.” (A footnote alerts readers that “The Coast Guard/Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation Team, which plans to issue a report in March 2011, is examining the firefighting efforts.”) In September, Admiral Thad Allen described the private boats that attempted to put the fire out as a “floating militia” that lacked coordination.

Among the changes urged by the commission are an independent agency with “enforcement authority to oversee all aspects of offshore drilling safety” and improvements and better coordination in spill response planning.