Obama's BP Oil Spill Commission Gets It Wrong

When the government allows safety violations on such a high scale it is rewarding companies who court danger

A few weeks ago, when the Presidential Commission on the Gulf Oil Spill announced that the Macondo blowout was NOT the result of decisions that BP made trying to save money, I was surprised. Much of the reporting we've seen has suggested that cost-cutting decisions on the over-budget well contributed to the disaster. But there was Fred Bartlit, chief counsel for the Commission, saying, "to date, we have not found a single instance where human beings made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety." A Wall Street Journal blog said he "all but acquitted BP of the gravest charge it faced."

Or maybe not. New and excellent reporting out from Katie Howell at Greenwire shows that the commission deleted a slide from last week's presentation. The missing slide showed 11 instances where companies involved in the spill took risks to save time, and therefore money. Seven of the 11 decisions listed were made by BP employees. The slide was apparently accidentally uploaded to the commission's website and has since been taken down. (Below is the slide provided by Greenwire.) A commission spokesman said the slide was removed because it hadn't been approved by all commission members.


I'm more of a snafu-theorist than a conspiracy theorist: The world as it is seems to be the product of compounded mistakes and inattentions rather than a grand diabolical plan. So I'm disinclined to imagine that the members of the commission were trying to somehow favor BP or "acquit" it of wrongdoing by leaving out the slide and making statements that directly contradict it. But doesn't this look just awful?

What is the commission thinking? The purpose of this commission is to examine the facts and develop options to prevent a repeat, while giving the public the satisfaction of a full and transparent investigation of the blowout before the whole thing descends into the murky depths of the courtrooms where BP and TransOcean and Halliburton will pull at each other like giant squid. Bartlit's earlier statement strained credibility, and now, with the addition of the slide the public is left with the impression that the commission is at best inept and at worst corrupt. The commission needs to make a serious statement about this slide and their conclusions. Also, I think the commission should make its deliberations more transparent--perhaps by webcasting them just like the Macando wellhead was webcast.

The Obama administration has had a persistent problem with managing the "optics" of the spill, so that they have appeared to minimize the spill and its effects in ways that seem to benefit BP. Early on the government appeared to accept BP's underestimates of the amount of oil flowing from the well and then in August Carol Browner said the "vast majority" of the oil was gone from the Gulf, referring to a NOAA report. (That "Oil Budget Calculator" was revised and re-released yesterday with a nuanced disclaimer that it doesn't claim to explain "where the oil is now.") At it's heart the administration seems to feel conflicted about the proper role of government as adversary or partner to the oil company, reflecting larger tensions in our society. 

President Obama could use this opportunity to make a principled response to the spill, not only by making the commission's dealings more transparent, but also by explaining how government oversight and regulation makes markets work better--not worse. During Congressional hearings on the spill, it came out that BP had been cited by OSHA for 760 safety violations in the past five years while Sunoco had eight, ConocoPhillips had eight, Citgo had two, and Exxon had one. This vast disparity in violations suggests that when government allows safety violations on that scale it is essentially rewarding companies who court danger. After all, BP gas and Exxon gas sell for the same amount per gallon in the marketplace, while Exxon clearly invests more money and resources in safety. The role of government is to enforce safety laws to create fair markets, and keep the environment safe for everyone.