An independent commission formed by President Barack Obama to look at the root causes of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and the proper process for combating such catastrophes in the future holds its first public hearing Monday in New Orleans.
The hearing at the Hilton Riverside downtown begins at 9 a.m. More information is available at the commission’s website, http://www.oilspillcommission.gov.
The seven-member commission is led by former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham and Republican former Environmental Protection Agency Director William Reilly, who said in a joint interview Friday that they want to determine why advances in safety, cleanup and government oversight haven’t kept pace with the technology that allowed oil companies to drill deeper and farther offshore.
Graham said Monday’s hearing will mainly be a status report from Coast Guard and BP representatives about the progress and challenges of the cleanup and containment efforts that have dragged on for nearly three months.
The second meeting Tuesday will focus on fishers, oil industry workers, hotel operators and others in coastal communities hurt by the spill and the resulting forced stoppage of deepwater drilling.
Also Tuesday, the commission plans to take testimony from government officials, mainly those at the state and local level, so they can describe what’s happening from their perspective. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and coastal parish leaders have repeatedly expressed frustration at the federal red tape and BP delays that they say have impeded their response, particularly their efforts to protect hundreds of miles of delicate coastal marshes.
In addition, the seven commission members were to have toured the Gulf Coast over the weekend to see the response and cleanup work first-hand.
“The hearing is to give voice to the region,” Reilly said.
When hearing from people who work in the offshore oil industry and local government officials, the commission is sure to get an earful about the effects of the president’s deepwater drilling moratorium, imposed May 28 and now on hold in a contentious fight in federal court. An appeals court panel is expected to rule this week on whether U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman was correct in blocking the ban.
Obama initially suggested the commission could act more quickly than its six-month charge to provide interim recommendations that could help bring back safe drilling sooner. Reilly showed an interest in that, but by Friday he had cooled on it considerably. He said it was unlikely that the commission would come to sufficiently solid conclusions about industrywide drilling processes to be able to persuade the Department of Interior to allow work to resume before the moratorium expires in late November.
Besides, he said, a top Interior Department official made it clear to Reilly that the agency will chart its own course on the moratorium.
Graham said the commission will have some investigative functions, too, and will draw heavily from the findings of a Marine Board investigation started in early May and from sworn testimony given by eyewitnesses and oil company executives before various congressional committees.
Besides the co-chairmen, members of the commiission are, from top left, Frances Beinecke, Donald Boesch, Terry Garcia, Cherry Murray and Fran Ulmer. The video image of oil spewing from the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico was recorded June 13.
The commission may be limited, however, by a lack of subpoena power, which congressional committees and the Marine Board use to compel witnesses to testify. For example, Reilly said a BP meeting in London conflicts with the New Orleans hearings and the commission was having trouble getting top executives to come. But he said the day after he was appointed, he called BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, who pledged his support.
Graham said the House of Representatives has passed a bill granting the commission subpoena power and they’re hopeful the Senate will follow suit soon.
The commission is seeking $15 million to pay a staff of more than 30 researchers and investigators and to finance hearings and other activities. Graham said the House reduced that to $12 million, but it’s still pending Senate review. In the meantime, the commission is using $4 million from the Department of Energy’s budget to operate and hire staff.
The commission and its staff are a mix of environmentalists and energy industry insiders, although critics say it’s slanted toward anti-drilling types. The key staff includes research director Jay Hakes, the former head of the Energy Information Administration and the author of the book “A Declaration of Energy Independence,” and science adviser Richard Sears, a visiting scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Shell’s former vice president for exploration and deepwater technical evaluation.
Along with Graham and Reilly, the other members of the commission are: Frances Beinecke, head of the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council; Don Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; Terry Garcia of the National Geographic Society; Cherry Murray, dean of the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Fran Ulmer, chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage and a former Alaska state legislator.