Obama’s BP Disaster Commission: Looking Forward with No Subpoenas

As promised Obama signed an executive order forming a presidential commission to study the BP disaster today. I thought it’d be instructive to compare what he just formed with what Edward Markey and Lois Capps proposed. Starting with this detail:

Sec. 4. Administration. (a) The Commission shall hold public hearings and shall request information including relevant documents from Federal, State, and local officials, nongovernmental organizations, private entities, scientific institutions, industry and workforce representatives, communities, and others affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, as necessary to carry out its mission. [my emphasis]

Obama’s envisioning this Commission “requesting” information from entities like BP and Halliburton. Capps and Markey, however, envision subpoenas:

(b) Subpoenas-

(1) ISSUANCE-

(A) IN GENERAL- A subpoena may be issued under this subsection only–

(i) by agreement of the Chairman and the Vice Chairman; or

(ii) by the affirmative vote of eight members of the Commission.

(B) SIGNATURE- Subject to subparagraph (A), subpoenas issued under this subsection may be issued under the signature of the Chairman or any member designated by a majority of the Commission, and may be served by any person designated by the Chairman or a member designated by a majority of the Commission.

(2) ENFORCEMENT-

(A) IN GENERAL- In the case of contumacy or failure to obey a subpoena issued under paragraph (1), the United States district court for the judicial district in which the subpoenaed person resides, is served, or may be found, or where the subpoena is returnable, may issue an order requiring such person to appear at any designated place to testify or to produce documentary or other evidence. Any failure to obey the order of the court may be punished by the court as a contempt of that court.

(B) ADDITIONAL ENFORCEMENT- In the case of a failure of a witness to comply with a subpoena or to testify when summoned under authority of this section, the Commission may, by majority vote, certify a statement of fact constituting such failure to the appropriate United States attorney, who may bring the matter before a grand jury for its action, under the same statutory authority and procedures as if the United States attorney had received a certification under sections 102 through 104 of the Revised Statutes of the United States (2 U.S.C. 192 et seq.).

Obama also has a different idea of who should serve on this committee, specifically providing for industry participation Read more

Congress’ 30-Day Deadline for Rubber-Stamping Exploration Plans

The other day, when Sheldon Whitehouse asked Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar why BP had gotten an exemption from the full-blown NEPA process from which it presumably should have been categorically excluded, Salazar referenced a 30-day deadline from Congress to approve exploration plans.

Senator, there has been significant environmental review, including Environmental Impact Statements that has been conducted with respect to this activity in the Gulf of Mexico. It is an area where we know a lot about the environment, we know a lot about the infrastructure that is there. The question of the categorical exclusion in part relates to the Congressional 30-day requirement that MMS has to approve or disapprove an exploration plan. [my emphasis]

Mineral Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum elaborated on this 30-day deadline on Wednesday.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act we’re required to examine the environmental impacts of any major federal actions, certainly the oil and gas leasing is a major federal action. We have conducted many Environmental Impact Statements before we get to the point of an individual well drilling decision. We conduct an EIS on the full 5-Year Plan for oil and gas drilling, We have conducted EIS on the lease sales in the Gulf and then separately in Alaska. We also conducted some separate Environmental Impact Reviews on leasing in the particular area–drilling in the particular area in the Mississippi Canyon here in the Gulf. When we get to the point of deciding on an individual exploration plan for a particular permit, we are under a statutory obligation under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to make a decision within 30 days. That very much limits our ability to conduct environmental reviews. Many of our environmental reviews are categorical exclusions. We review that to determine whether there’s a trigger for us to do a full Environmental Assessment, which we did actually on exploration plans for Arctic drilling. But we’re still limited to that 30-day decision, and we have to still make a decision on whether to go forward with an exploration plan within 30 days, which limits the amount of environmental review we can conduct. In the package that the Administration sent up to provide additional appropriations, we also asked to lift that limit in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to allow 90 days or more to provide more full analysis of exploration plans before drilling.

Here’s a history of the OCSLA. The 30-day requirement itself is described in the plan approval process of the OCSLA.

(1) Except as otherwise provided in this subchapter, prior to commencing exploration pursuant to any oil and gas lease issued or maintained under this subchapter, the holder thereof shall submit an exploration plan to the Secretary for approval. Such plan may apply to more than one lease held by a lessee in any one region of the outer Continental Shelf, or by a group of lessees acting under a unitization, pooling, or drilling agreement, and shall be approved by the Secretary if he finds that such plan is consistent with the provisions of this subchapter, regulations prescribed under this subchapter, including regulations prescribed by the Secretary pursuant to paragraph (8) of section 1334 (a) of this title, and the provisions of such lease. The Secretary shall require such modifications of such plan as are necessary to achieve such consistency. The Secretary shall approve such plan, as submitted or modified, within thirty days of its submission, except that the Secretary shall disapprove such plan if he determines that

(A) any proposed activity under such plan would result in any condition described in section 1334 (a)(2)(A)(i) of this title, and

(B) such proposed activity cannot be modified to avoid such condition. If the Secretary disapproves a plan under the preceding sentence, he may, subject to section 1334 (a)(2)(B) of this title, cancel such lease and the lessee shall be entitled to compensation in accordance with the regulations prescribed under section 1334 (a)(2)(C)(i) or (ii) of this title. [my emphasis]

And that sets the standard for rejecting an application in 1334 (a)(2)(A)(i) this way:

(i) continued activity pursuant to such lease or permit would probably cause serious harm or damage to life (including fish and other aquatic life), to property, to any mineral (in areas leased or not leased), to the national security or defense, or to the marine, coastal, or human environment;

Now, I would have to do a lot more review of legislative history of the OCSLA to see where that 30-day deadline came from, though so many of the deadlines in the OCSLA are set at 30 days, it might just have been arbitrary (or, it might have been what appeared to be a reasonable deadline to make sure the process kept moving forward–you gotta Drill Baby Drill, dontcha know).

But given Salazar’s and Birnbaum’s statements, the effect appears to be clear. That 30-day deadline appears to ensure that the MMS only looks closely at these exploration plans if there’s a blinking red flag in the plan, and not something trivial like drilling in extremely deep waters and/or innovative drilling plans–the things Whitehouse noted that should have prevented this exploration plan from being exempted from an individual assessment, the things that are causing such acute problems now.

And of course, to actually change this 30-day rubber stamp process, the legislation is going to have to get by industry shills like Lisa Murkowski and James Inhofe. Something to look forward to, I guess.

Oh, one more thing. The Congressman who raised concerns about the Arctic drilling? That’s the normally loathsome Heath Shuler. Just an indication of how a giant disaster can turn even the bluest of dogs into hippie environmentalists.

BP Goes There: “No One Could Have Predicted…”

Yeah, I know. Of course BP is saying, “no one could have predicted.”

Of course, BP had a big incentive not to predict these things: one of the reasons it was able to get an exemption from an individualized Environmental Impact Study is that it estimated the largest possible spill from this well to be 162,000 BBLs, making it less than the 250,000 BBLs estimated in its regional drilling plan. You see, BP had an incentive not to predict this catastrophe.

Update: See ThinkProgress’ compendium of “No one could have predicted” claims from early in this disaster.

John Hall Questions BP’s Greenwashing Campaign

In yesterday’s Transportation Committee hearing, John Hall hammered BP American President Lamar McKay about something a number of others have, as well: the amount of money BP has spent on greenwashing of late.

The answer? $10-12 million last year and $20 million this year.

So it’s roughly probably about the same or maybe a little more than the cost of a blowout preventer.

Sounds like Hall would like to prevent businesses from deducting such expenses in the future.

Congress Gets Results on Corexit

At yesterday’s hearing on the BP Disaster, Peter DeFazio and Jerrold Nadler hammered BP America President Lamar McKay on the relative toxicity and efficacy of the dispersant Corexit as compared to some other dispersants. They pointed out that Corexit is one of the most toxic of the approved dispersants and is not as effective as others. Here’s a chart of the relative toxicity and efficacy from the EPA (click to enlarge).

In addition, on Monday, Edward Markey wrote EPA Administration Lisa Jackson asking why BP was using Corexit rather than a less toxic dispersant. Among other questions Markey asked were:

It is my understanding that the main dispersants applied so far are from a product line called Corexit, some of which had their approval rescinded in Britain more than a decade ago, because laboratory tests found them harmful to sea life that inhabits rocky shores.

a. How did EPA ensure that this dispersant’s toxicity to aquatic life was evaluated?

b. Was its toxicity to mollusks and other sea life that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico evaluated, and if so, what were the results? If not, why not?

c. If EPA relied on toxicity studies for coastal morphologies different from that of the Gulf Coast, what was done to evaluate the applicability of those studies for the use of the dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico environment?

d. Was the toxicity to other subsurface aquatic life evaluated? If so, please provide details, and if not, why not?

Late yesterday, the EPA informed BP it’s going to have to switch to another, less toxic, dispersant within three days.

The Environmental Protection Agency informed BP officials late Wednesday that the company has 24 hours to choose a less toxic form of chemical dispersants to break up its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to government sources familiar with the decision, and must apply the new form of dispersants within 72 hours of submitting the list of alternatives.

The move is significant, because it suggests federal officials are now concerned that the unprecedented use of chemical dispersants could pose a significant threat to the Gulf of Mexico’s marine life. BP has been using two forms of dispersants, Corexit 9500A and Corexit 9527A, and so far has applied 600,000 gallons on the surface and 55,000 underwater.

I guess all these hearings aren’t entirely a waste of time.

(Updated with efficacy table.)

Update: Here’s EPA’s order to BP to use a less toxic dispersant. And here’s some data from the dispersant monitoring.

Update: According to Nadler’s office, the maker of Dispersit got an order from BP for 60,000 gallons today.

Sheldon Whitehouse Lists the NEPA Exclusions

At yesterday’s Environment and Public Works hearing on the BP disaster, Sheldon Whitehouse asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Council on Environmental Quality Chair Helen Sutley why BP had been exempted from doing an Environmental Impact Study on the Macondo drilling site. He listed a number of things that should categorically exclude a project from receiving such an exemption. Two of those almost certainly applied to this well.

  • Areas of high seismic risk or seismicity, relatively untested deep water, or remote areas
  • Utilizing new or unusual technology

In response, Salazar spoke about how much we know about that area.

Senator, there has been significant environmental review, including Environmental Impact Statements that has been conducted with respect to this activity in the Gulf of Mexico. It is an area where we know a lot about the environment, we know a lot about the infrastructure that is there. The question of the categorical exclusion in part relates to the Congressional 30-day requirement that MMS has to approve or disapprove an exploration plan.

You think Salazar knows he’s going to be held responsible for all the exemptions approved since this disaster?

In any case, here’s how much BP knows about the area:

An emergency response plan prepared by BP shows the British energy giant never anticipated an oil spill as large as the one seeping through the Gulf of Mexico.The 582-page document, titled “Regional Oil Spill Response Plan — Gulf of Mexico,” was approved in July by the federal Minerals Management Service (MMS). It offers technical details on how to use chemical dispersants and provides instructions on what to say to the news media, but it does not mention how to react if a deep-water well spews oil uncontrollably.

[snip]

In a section titled “Sensitive Biological & Human-Use Resources,” the plan lists “seals, sea otters and walruses” as animals that could be impacted by a Gulf of Mexico spill — even though no such animals live in the Gulf. [emphasis]

Sure, we know a lot about the environment. We just have some crazy belief that the walruses have decided to vacation on the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama’s Commission

As we go through another round of hearings on the BP disaster today (at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this morning, Bernie Sanders asked Ken Salazar whether the risk of a disaster like this was worth the $.03/gallon decrease on the price of gas in 2030; Salazar didn’t really answer), Obama has leaked his intent to appoint a Presidential Committee to investigate the spill.

President Obama plans to create a presidential commission to investigate the BP oil spill, administration officials said Monday.

The commission will be established by an executive order, they said. One official likened the new panel to one ordered by President Jimmy Carter to examine the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979.

Thus far, though, the Administration has only leaked its intent, with no details on the mandate of the Commission.

It will be interesting to see whether this Commission falls into that great tradition of whitewash commissions, or whether it will be a real commission. Ken Salazar said that the work of existing investigations (an IG one, and a Coast Guard one, and a science one, I think) would feed into the Presidential Commission. But there are several other efforts to push an investigation. Barbara Boxer has asked DOJ to investigate whether BP lied on its drilling permit application (in its claim that it had a plan to respond to a disaster). And Lois Capps and Ed Markey have sponsored a bill that would mandate a commissions, with subpoena powers and restrictions on conflicts of interest.

As Atrios says:

Because Bob Kerrey, Tom Keane, and Tom Daschle Need Something To Do?

Yes I’m a bit negative about ‘presidential commissions.’ I’ll be more positive if experts, rather than ex-politicians, get to do the job.

Betty Sutton on the Coerced Transocean Statements


As you may have read, Transocean (the company that owns the Deepwater Horizon rig) made everyone rescued from the rig sign statements laying out whether they were involved in the incident, and whether they had gotten hurt.

Lawyers for the oil rig’s owner, Transocean, requested that workers who had survived the blast sign the form in the wake of the April 20 blowout on the Deepwater Horizon. This was hours before the workers had been allowed to see their families.

Now some of those survivors say they were coerced and that the forms are being used against them as they file lawsuits seeking compensation for psychiatric problems and other injuries from the blast.

A couple of members of Congress asked Transocean’s CEO about it yesterday, most pointedly Betty Sutton in this exchange.

Now, frankly, I think there may be some truth to Transocean’s claim that they were trying to collect information with the form. This is a documentation-driven industry, and for a rig owner like Transocean, getting a sense of who was on the rig, what contractor they worked for, and what they were doing would be a concern. That said, given the lock-down they kept workers in until they signed these documents, I’d guess they were more interested in surveying precisely what information was out there so they could keep that information locked down as anything else. And the lockdown was certainly heartless and heavy-handed.

Besides, Transocean CEO Steve Newman had to have known yesterday that his company would move, today, to limit its liability in the disaster (albeit on different grounds).

Transocean Ltd., the owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that burned and sank last month unleashing a massive oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico, will file in federal court Thursday a petition to limit its liability to just under $27 million, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans and a copy of the filing reviewed by Dow Jones Newswires.

Read more

Lois Capps: Booms Will Only Collect 15% of Spilled Oil

The eye-popping part of this exchange is the news that all the efforts to protect the Gulf Coast are only going to collect a fraction of it from reaching the shore.

But the whole comment is worthwhile, because Capps expresses so well the outrage we should all be expressing about the inefficacy of oil spill recovery.

CEO Mud Wrestling

One of the key moments of yesterday’s Environment and Public Works hearing on the BP Disaster came when Tom Udall tried to pin the CEOs down on whether, as reported by WSJ, at BP’s direction, Halliburton swapped out the drilling mud for seawater prematurely–something we’ve looked at as well.

BP, the well owner, blames the failure of a big set of valves on the sea floor, known as the blowout preventer, to halt the blowout once it started.

A different account comes from Halliburton, a contractor in the drilling. This account is corroborated to some extent by Transocean, as well as by two workers on the drilling rig, The Wall Street Journal has determined.

This account describes a failure to place a cement plug within the well. The plug is designed to prevent gas from escaping up the pipe to the surface.

Before such a plug is placed, the job of keeping underground gas from coming up the pipe is done by heavy drilling fluid inside the well, commonly known as “mud.”

The plug is normally put in before the mud is removed, but according to the account of Halliburton, Transocean and the two workers, in this case, that wasn’t done—drilling mud was removed before a final cement plug was placed in the well.

It is not clear why such a decision would have been made. Rig owner Transocean says that BP, as owner of the well that was just being completed, made key decisions on how to proceed. BP declined to comment on this account of the drilling procedures.

Predictably, no one really wanted to go on the record whether that was one of what appear to be numerous problems that contributed to the spill. Equally predictably, no one seems to have the well plan that would make this all clear.

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