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Obama Gives a Bipartisan Commission Six Months to Revise Drilling Rules

May 22, 2010

Obama Gives a Bipartisan Commission Six Months to Revise Drilling Rules

WASHINGTON — President Obama established a bipartisan national commission on Friday to investigate what caused the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and figure out where the government went wrong so as to “make sure it never happens again,” as he put it.

Mr. Obama tapped two prominent former officials to lead the commission — Bob Graham, the former senator from Florida, and William K. Reilly, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency — and gave them six months to come up with a plan to revamp federal regulation of offshore oil drilling.

“If the laws on our books are inadequate to prevent such an oil spill, or if we didn’t enforce those laws, I want to know it,” Mr. Obama said in his Saturday radio and Internet address. “I want to know what worked and what didn’t work in our response to the disaster, and where oversight of the oil and gas industry broke down. We know, for example, that a cozy relationship between oil and gas companies and agencies that regulate them has long been a source of concern.”

Mr. Obama said he wanted to hold both the government and BP accountable for the spill that continues to spew thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day. But he did not retreat from his plan to expand offshore oil drilling and in fact portrayed the commission as a means to make that possible despite the disaster.

“Because it represents 30 percent of our oil production, the Gulf of Mexico can play an important part in securing our energy future,” the president said. “But we can only pursue offshore oil drilling if we have assurances that a disaster like the BP oil spill will not happen again.”

The establishment of the commission comes at a time when oil continues to gush into the gulf, with no end in sight, more than a month after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 people. Mr. Obama has come under increasing fire for not being more aggressive. A letter sent to BP by the federal government this week requesting more transparency was criticized as too deferential, and cable channels are filled with commentators asking why the federal government has left so much to BP to handle.

At his daily briefing on Friday, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, explained repeatedly that current law makes the company responsible for the recovery and cleanup, not taxpayers. He noted that BP has the specialized equipment and technical expertise to try to shut off a leak 5,000 feet below the surface, not the federal government.

“They are responsible, and we are overseeing to ensure that what they’re doing is what needs to be done,” Mr. Gibbs said, ticking off the agencies involved, including the E.P.A., the Coast Guard, the Minerals Management Service, the Small Business Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “There’s nothing that would denote that the federal government has stood there and hoped for the best.”

The new commission is intended to emulate others that have followed major national disasters like the accident that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. It will look at what happened when the rig exploded and make recommendations on what the government needs to do to reshape national regulations.

Mr. Graham, a Democrat, served for 18 years in the Senate after two terms as Florida’s governor. He is also serving now on a panel established by Congress to look at the financial crisis of 2008, and he previously served as chairman of a commission that studied how to prevent the spread of nuclear and other unconventional weapons.

Mr. Reilly ran the E.P.A. for four years under President George Bush, including during the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. He is chairman of ClimateWorks Foundation and former president of the World Wildlife Fund and the Conservation Foundation. He currently serves on the boards of directors of DuPont and ConocoPhillips.

Mr. Obama said he would name the other five members of the panel shortly. The commission’s mandate, he said, will be “to consider both the root causes of the disaster and offer options on what safety and environmental precautions we need to take to prevent a similar disaster from happening again.”

Environmental groups welcomed the establishment of the commission. “The entire framework of government oversight needs to be reviewed and strengthened,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The commission, she added, needs to develop guidelines for “whether, when, where and under what circumstances new offshore drilling operations should be allowed.”

Vikki Spruill, president of the Ocean Conservancy, said, “That must be part of an aggressive effort to reform a broken system.” Noting the president’s assessment about regulators being too “cozy” with industry, she added, “That is not a problem that will be solved without undertaking sustained and far-reaching reform.”

In his Saturday address, the president repeated his criticism of BP and other companies involved in the spill. “What led to this disaster was a breakdown of responsibility on the part of BP and perhaps others, including Transocean and Halliburton,” he said. “And we will continue to hold the relevant companies accountable.” At the same time, he added that “we also need to hold Washington accountable.”