Fresh Eyes on the BP Disaster

An Independent Commission to Investigate the Oil Spill

President Obama should appoint an independent commission to investigate the BP disaster and make recommendations to prevent future tragedies, writes Daniel J. Weiss.

Workers place oil containment booms around in the central marshes in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. (AP/Eric Gay)
Workers place oil containment booms around in the central marshes in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. (AP/Eric Gay)

The BP disaster is unprecedented in the United States. We cannot predict the full scope of public health, economic, or environmental damages until BP is able to halt the flood of oil. But the horrible environmental calamity has claimed 11 lives and contaminated the water with millions of gallons of oil. The best-case scenario at this point is that oil will continue to flood from the ocean floor for another week until BP is able to cap the well. If that effort fails, it could be several months before BP is able to drill another well to capture the oil currently fouling the Gulf Coast waters.

The federal government can look to past administrations for guidance in understanding the causes of this devastating situation and taking measures to minimize future occurrences. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan—after the Three Mile Island near-nuclear meltdown and the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, respectively—appointed independent commissions of high-profile public officials and experts to thoroughly investigate the causes of these events and make recommendations to prevent future tragedies. President Barack Obama should follow their lead by appointing an independent commission to completely examine the causes of the BP disaster and offer guidance for how we can make sure it never happens again.

President Obama asked Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar after the initial explosion to “conduct a thorough review of this incident and report back to me in 30 days.” The Departments of Interior and Homeland Security agreed to conduct a joint investigation, with the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Coast Guard sharing the lead for this evaluation.

This is an important start, but it is not a complete response to a disaster of this colossal magnitude. Any investigation must focus not only on BP, but also on the performance of federal and state agencies responsible for oversight of offshore oil production.

One of the charges of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, for instance, was to evaluate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing, inspection, operation, and enforcement procedures as applied to this facility since the NRC could not undertake a truly objective review of its own procedures.

The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident was similarly able to review NASA’s management structure and procedures and more objectively assess its contribution to the accident. Both independent commissions issued findings that were critical of the agencies’ performances and made recommendations for management changes.

An independent commission is particularly necessary since the Minerals Management Service was scandal ridden during the Bush administration. Internal investigations, as reported by The New York Times, found “a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch.” The Obama administration has had only 16 months to reform this agency. It is simply too much to ask it to assess its own performance.

An independent commission investigating the BP disaster should have subpoena power and conduct public hearings. The TMI and NASA commissions had six months and four months, respectively, to conduct their investigation and issue their reports. The BP disaster commission should similarly also have a limited period of time and the authority to conduct a thorough review.

The Obama administration swiftly responded to the BP disaster from day one and mobilized the U.S. government’s resources to attempt to minimize the harm from this unprecedented event on the health, economy, and environment of the Gulf Coast. President Obama should now ensure complete scrutiny of the explosion and its aftermath by appointing an independent commission to assess the causes and damages and make recommendations to prevent future tragedies.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow