Gulf of Mexico oil spill: Panel urges major reforms

Fire boats battle a fire at the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 22, 2010 The Deepwater Horizon disaster caused one of the worst oil spills in history

A major US report into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has called for wide-ranging reforms of the oil industry to prevent a repeat of the disaster.

The report comes from a US presidential commission investigating the spill.

The panel also said the US needed to expand and update drilling regulation and establish an independent drilling safety agency.

The April blast aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 people and caused one of the worst oil spills in history.

The Macondo well, about a mile under the sea's surface, eventually leaked millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, damaging hundreds of miles of coastline before it was capped in July.

The findings came in the final report of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, which President Barack Obama convened in May to investigate the root causes of the spill and recommend changes to industry and government policy.

'Failed oversight'

The report spreads blame for the disaster widely, criticising BP, which owned the Macondo well; Transocean, which owned the rig; and Halliburton, which managed the well-sealing operation.

Deepwater Horizon inquiries

Presidential commission (January 2011)

The oil spill was an avoidable disaster caused by a series of failures and blunders made by BP and its partners, including Transocean and Halliburton, and government departments assigned to regulate them, the panel concludes. It also warns such a disaster is likely to recur because of industry complacency.

BP internal report (September 2010)

BP admits its managers on the oil rig could have prevented the catastrophe had they picked up warning signs of a breach of the cement seal at the bottom of the well, as well as unusual pressure test readings, shortly before the explosion. But it places much of the blame on Transocean and Halliburton.

Also due:

  • Department of Justice criminal and civil probes
  • Chemical Safety Board investigation into regulatory approaches to offshore industry
  • Joint inquiry by the US Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
  • National Academy of Engineering analysis
  • Various Congressional inquiries

It said the companies had cut corners to save time and money - decisions that contributed to the disaster.

"Our exhaustive investigation finds that none of the major aspects of offshore drilling safety - not the regulatory oversight, not the industry safety standards, not the spill response practices - kept pace with the push into deep water," said panel co-chairman William Reilly.

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who sat on the panel, said the investigation showed the disaster was "preventable and foreseeable", and described a shared "failure that was years in the making".

"Federal government oversight utterly failed to provide an acceptable level of protection for those on the rig and for the Americans who call the Gulf their home," Mr Graham said in a statement.

"Our regulators were over-matched."

Mr Graham cited "significant errors and misjudgements" from BP, Halliburton and Transocean.

The commission's report recommends:

  • increasing budgets and training for the federal agency that regulates offshore drilling
  • increasing the liability cap for damages when companies drill offshore
  • dedicating 80% of fines and penalties from the BP spill to restoration of the Gulf
  • lending more weight to scientific opinions in decisions about drilling

The BBC's Paul Adams, in Washington, says William Reilly was at pains to emphasise that last year's spill was not a freakish, one-off event, but rather part of a much wider problem.

The report's authors want the companies to raise their safety standards, in order to restore the confidence of the American people in the safety of offshore drilling, our correspondent says.

The commission's recommendations include plenty of talk about tougher regulation. In Congress, where Republicans who traditionally mistrust federal regulation now control the House of Representatives, it'll be interesting to see how lawmakers decide to act, our correspondent adds.

Safety practices

In a statement on Tuesday, BP said it supported the commission's efforts to boost industry-wide safety measures.

"We are committed to working with government officials and other operators and contractors to identify and implement changes that will enhance safety practices throughout the oil and gas industry," it said.

Last week, the commission released an advance chapter of its report which said the firms involved had made decisions to cut costs and save time that contributed to the spill.

It said that the decisions, even if inadvertent, had significantly increased the risk the Macondo well would blow out.

"BP did not have adequate controls in place to ensure that key decisions in the months leading up to the blow-out were safe or sound from an engineering perspective," the report found.

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