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The Gulf Oil Spill Commission: An Inside Look

Cherry pic use web

Cherry Murray

Ed. Note: Established in May, 2010, by President Obama, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling issued its report on January 11, 2011 after 6 months of intensive effort. Cherry Murray, Dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and APS President in 2009, served on the commission, and shortly after it ceased operations on March 11, she talked with APS News staff writer Michael Lucibella about her experiences. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: In a nutshell, how would you describe what the commission found?
A: Let me explain what our charter was first, because it was quite broad. What we needed to do was look at the whole picture, figure out what the root cause of the Deepwater Horizon blowout was, and then develop some options for guarding against and mitigating oil spills associated with offshore drilling, learn from this disaster and figure out what government, industry and whoever else needed to do in order to prevent this from ever happening again.

There were seven commissioners: two co-chairs, Bob Graham and Bill Reilly, and five others. There were 60 staff and the staff did a huge amount of work. The executive director was Richard Lazarus. We had six months. This was the fastest any presidential commission has ever been asked to do a report. We had a huge amount of work to do in a very short amount of time, and how that got accomplished with seven commissioners is by having this incredibly able staff of sixty people. The investigation of what actually happened is still ongoing and there are at least 13 different groups studying this.

Our job was to look at the root cause and leverage but not interfere with any other investigations that were going on. We had several subcommittees who were working on various aspects of this.

We ended up making recommendations on nine distinct areas. The first area was improving the safety, because it became very obvious that this was a serious issue in that eleven people died. We asked what should the government do to improve the safety, and what should the industry do to improve safety, then looked at safeguarding the environment, which is not the same as human safety, but obviously linked. Other issues included strengthening oil spill response planning and capacity, advancing well containment, and then what to do about restoring the Gulf. We also looked at ensuring financial responsibility of the parties at fault.
The major conclusion is that this incident was a failure of management. Offshore oil drilling can be done safely. It will always have risks, and we need to better mitigate those risks. So it was a failure of management, both of the industry and of the government oversight.

Q: What was your personal role?
A: I was on three subcommittees; the subcommittee on what actually happened at the well, the subcommittee on industry safety and the subcommittee on containment. They’re slightly more engineering-oriented committees.

Q: How did you go about investigating for these committees?
A: The first thing we did as a commission was fan out. There are five states involved so we fanned out to the five states to look at the impacts on the local governments, people, industry and other entities down in the Gulf. We did a quick tour and then held a hearing in New Orleans for several days. We talked to companies. We had experts from the oil industry–for example, Rich Sears, who was the senior advisor for science and engineering, who retired a year ago from being head of the deepwater Shell exploration in the Gulf. The investigative lawyer team and I went down to the sister ship, the Deepwater Nautilus, which is leased by Shell and owned by Transocean, to look at what it would be like being on the rig and see exactly what’s where, because we were trying to figure out who knew what when.

Q: What stuck with you when you were working on the project? What will you remember most about working on this?
A: The team was just absolutely first rate. The staff were outstanding people and it was incredible to get to know them, as well as the commissioners. We had decided as a commission that we would have a consensus report. It was bipartisan. One of the two co-chairs is a Republican and one’s a Democrat.

One thing that’s quite different from the normal committees that I’m used to serving on is that this was highly politically charged, and obviously there are many lawsuits that are going to come from this. In the middle of this incredible political and legal situation, we had to do our work as clearly as possible. So we were not to interfere with the criminal investigation, which we didn’t. We were not to comment on the political situation of ‘Should we have a moratorium at this time?’ Instead we stepped back and listened politely to everyone’s comments in the hearings, and letters and other input, and asked the question, ‘In the future, would it be a good idea if we have another incident like this, is the moratorium a good way of dealing with it?’ not ‘Should we or should we have not called the moratorium right now?’

The other thing that we did was look at how well the oversight was being carried out. It was very clear that needed a complete revamping. It was clear to secretary Salazar as well, and he called in a new chief of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), Michael Bromwich from the Justice Department. There was a lot of back and forth on ‘Here’s what we think, here’s how we think your agency should be reorganized,’ and he took that as helpful advice, and is doing it. There were a huge number of conversations with him, not just hearings, and therefore I think we had a lot more impact.  

Q: What was it like traveling down to the Gulf Coast at this time?
The Gulf region, in those five states, has a particular, very family-centered culture, and each family does one of three things: tourism, fishing and oil exploration in some way–it’s either services to oil rigs, working on the rigs or some other aspect of the oil and gas industry. The moratorium was called so that all halted, the tourism went down by a factor of two, and fishing was halted because there was a zone of no fishing. It was a terrible time of depression and anxiety.

The local governments were extremely upset because the national response plan, which was being carried out as a result of the oil pollution act, written in 1990, did not include local governments. It took a month for [the federal government] to realize that this was not working well. The Coast Guard was actually doing an incredibly fantastic job, but there was a communication problem. The locals felt completely left out so they were ad-hoc added into the teams. So I guess the nation learned the lesson that we need better local involvement in the response.

The other thing that we learned is that the problem of perception is way worse than the actual circumstances, which is why tourism went down by a factor of two. That was billions of dollars for the tourism industry and contributes a large part of the tax base and they were just wondering how they were going to make ends meet.

Q: What kind of perceptions do you mean?
A: The perceptions that you couldn’t possibly eat Gulf seafood. It was and still is much safer than public perception. And also that you couldn’t go to the beaches. There were very few oiled beaches. Yes there was some oil on the beaches, but the major decrease in tourism was completely unnecessary.

Q: What is the future looking like for the Gulf region?
A: The Mississippi Delta has been shrinking under seawater for forty years, and that is due to the dredging for shipping canals, which is done by the Army Corps of Engineers. There has been considerable damage done to the area, basically due to industrial use for the last forty years, and you can’t just restore it to what it was on April 20th a year ago–it needs considerable restoration. A glass-half-full look at this situation is that there will be money, and one of our recommendations to the president is that 80 percent of the damages that get paid because of this spill go into the restoration of the Gulf, which should bring this into a sustainable condition. Over the last 40 years the Gulf has lost land area equivalent to something like the state of New Jersey.

Q: What do you hope the country, the government and the public take away from your report?
A: The biggest lesson to be learned is that we need a very different safety culture in the Gulf of Mexico. The industry is perfectly capable of doing this. Since the Exxon Valdez incident, there has been no improvement in the technology of oil spills at all. We were doing exactly the same things that we were doing for the Exxon Valdez. We need to do better than that.

We also need to understand how to contain a well blowout like this. The technology that the oil and gas industry uses to drill these wells in very deep water is comparable in sophistication to the technology to go into space. What they have not done is put as much energy and resources into the technology for safety and for containment and spill response, and that has to change.

There are now two containment companies, one called Helix Producer and another one called Marine Well Containment Corporation, which was about a two billion dollar investment by a number of oil industry people who realized that the moratorium would not stop until we could actually do containment. The only way that oil wells can be killed for good is to drill a relief well, and that takes 90 days, which is why we had 90 days of oil spilling into the Gulf. We need something better than that, and that’s already happening in the industry.

We need an industry self-policing unit and much better oversight. The safety and environmental oversight needs to be removed from the leasing and revenue generation. Michael Bromwich has already started this process.

Q: Are you optimistic about your recommendations being adopted?
Yes, many of the most important recommendations don’t cost a lot of money. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to reorganize the MMS, but we said it needs to be better funded. One way of better funding it, which has already been proposed in Congress, is to take a percentage of the lease money. Right now the lease money goes right into the federal treasury. So instead of having a Congressional line item, make sure that the industry is paying for its regulation.

Any energy industry is risky, but you can mitigate the risks and you need to have very good industry safety culture, but you also need to have good federal regulation. That is probably the most critical of our recommendations. We also believe there needs to be way better science being used in all of the environmental impact statements the industry generates. Serious laws that are already on the books need to be better enforced.

Q: How did actually being on a rig change how you thought about it?
A: I think seeing the enormity of just how big these rigs are and how huge the blowout preventer is, which is about four stories tall. You see pictures of these things, but it doesn’t really strike you how much energy you need to shear the drill pipe for example. I got a much better feel for the risks associated with this industry.

We also cautioned against very quick production of oil in the Arctic, a frontier area where we don’t know enough about what’s there to know what we could possibly be damaging. More science needs to be done just to figure out what resources are there. We know for sure that it will be much harder to clean up. There’s a Coast Guard station, and it’s a thousand miles away. It took three and a half hours to get out to the Deepwater Horizon rig; how long is it going to take to go a thousand miles? The bacteria and other marine organisms that eat gas, if not oil, are not there in the Arctic and all chemical reactions are going to be slower, so the degradation of the oil would be incredibly slow. The damage would be much worse in the Arctic. We don’t know how to do spill cleanup among sea ice. We didn’t say ‘Don’t drill in the Arctic’, we said ‘Look, we need to understand the risks, perhaps one should look at this a little more carefully before doing a huge amount of development in the Arctic.’

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Editor: Alan Chodos