Learning from Tragedy

BP Disaster Investigation Must Be Free, Clear, and Complete

The Obama administration should use the Three Mile Island and Challenger commissions as models for examining the BP disaster, writes Daniel J. Weiss.

A dead Portuguese Man-O-War floats on a blob of oil in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, Louisiana. (AP/Eric Gay)
A dead Portuguese Man-O-War floats on a blob of oil in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, Louisiana. (AP/Eric Gay)

President Obama is likely to sign an executive order sometime during the next several days that would create an independent commission to investigate the causes behind the tragic BP oil disaster. A thorough independent investigation is essential to understand what caused the explosion that cost 11 workers their lives, and what led to the failure of the blowout preventer that was supposed to prevent an oil gusher.

The independent commissions established by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to investigate the Three Mile Island near-nuclear meltdown and the Challenger Space Shuttle accident, respectively, provide valuable guidance for the design and operation of the BP investigation.

Unlike many congressionally chartered commissions, the TMI and Challenger commissions were not required to have a particular bipartisan balance. The TMI panel did not establish specific criteria for its membership. President Carter appointed prominent people from various fields. The chair was Dartmouth College President John Kemeny, who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. The panel included five professors, a union president, a CEO, a governor, an environmental leader, and a resident near TMI.

The executive order to create the Challenger panel required members “from among distinguished leaders of the government, and the scientific, technical, and management communities.” Its chair was former Attorney General and Secretary of State William Rogers. The panel included two former astronauts, a former test pilot, and physicists and engineers from both academia and the aerospace industry.

The BP disaster panel should follow the Challenger model. The executive order should require that the panel includes members who are senior or retired government officials, distinguished marine biologists, oceanographers, chemists, geologists, and petroleum engineers, as well as management experts. It should also include at least one member of a nongovernmental environmental organization, a union leader, and a local official or citizen of an affected community.

The executive order establishing the TMI commission provided much more guidance for its investigation than the Challenger commission. The TMI charter included “a technical assessment of the events and their causes,” as well as an assessment of the utility’s management, emergency preparedness and response by federal agencies, and “an evaluation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing, inspection, operation and enforcement procedures as applied to this facility.”

The BP disaster commission should follow the TMI model. The executive order should require the study and investigation to include:

  • A technical assessment of the explosion, blow out, oil flow, and their causes
  • An estimate of the quantity of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico
  • An analysis of the roles of BP, Transocean, and Halliburton in this event
  • An assessment of the emergency preparedness of these three companies, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Interior, and the Department of Homeland Security
  • An appraisal of what agency should coordinate future emergency responses
  • A review of occupational safety measures on the rig
  • An evaluation of the Minerals Management Service’s leasing, permitting, oversight, and enforcement procedures applied to this and similar deep sea wells
  • A preliminary analysis of the public health, economic, and ecologic impacts of the blowout
  • An assessment of the public’s right to know about the accident and its aftermath, and BP’s, Transocean’s, and Halliburton’s responsibility to provide accurate, comprehensible, and timely information
  • A review of the technologies and safeguards employed by other nations to prevent similar disasters at their wells
  • Appropriate recommendations based on the commission’s findings

Neither the TMI nor Challenger executive orders explicitly required public hearings, but both panels conducted them. The BP panel should conduct public hearings, including at least one in the most heavily affected area to receive testimony on the disaster’s effects on the public health, economy, and ecology of affected communities.

The TMI and Challenger commissions had six and four months, respectively, to conduct their investigations and issue their reports and recommendations. Since the BP oil disaster is much larger than either of these events, the commission should have up to a year to complete its work. This event will continue to wreak havoc for years to come, but the commission should have a relatively short time for its investigation and report. This would enable oil companies and federal agencies to promptly implement the recommendations and significantly reduce the likelihood of a recurrence.

The federal government should also take a time out on issuing new offshore oil or gas leases and commencing development on idle deepwater leases until the BP oil disaster commission issues its final report and recommendations. We cannot risk the further expansion of deepwater oil and gas drilling until we understand what went wrong and how to fix it.

Both the TMI near-nuclear meltdown and the Challenger accident were shocking, unprecedented events. The postincident independent investigations produced sober assessments of what went wrong, and recommendations to avoid future occurrences. The breadth and size of the BP oil disaster will dwarf either of these unfortunate events. President Obama must design the commission so that its investigation into this catastrophe is independent, comprehensive, and transparent. This is an essential element to prevent another oil blowout like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress.

Thanks to Anna Soellner and Joe Romm.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow