Obama to Name Panel to Probe Spill

(Dow Jones Newswires), May 18, 2010

President Barack Obama will name a special commission to investigate the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, an administration official said Monday.

The move follows criticism of the government agencies responsible for regulating offshore drilling safety, which Mr. Obama joined last Friday when he denounced the "cozy relationship" between oil companies and federal regulators.

It is not clear who will lead the commission, which could be patterned after past presidential commissions that have investigated incidents such as the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

The Challenger commission was led by a former secretary of state, William Rogers, and included a cast of prominent scientists, former astronauts, military officers and engineers. The oil-spill commission won't include any current government employees, a person familiar with the plans said.

"Whether it's a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island or an oil blowout one mile deep, appointing an independent review panel is critical to reducing the risk of future accidents," said Rep. Edward Markey (D., Mass.), who called for an independent commission earlier this month.

The Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service (MMS), two agencies that had direct roles in offshore-drilling regulation, have been in the position of investigating their own alleged lapses in connection with the April 20 explosion and fire that sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killed 11 workers and touched off one of the worst offshore oil spills in U.S. history.

Separately, Chris Oynes, the top official overseeing offshore oil drilling for the MMS, will retire at the end of May, said people familiar with the situation.

The accident will be the subject of half a dozen congressional hearings this week, including two on Tuesday at which Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is scheduled to testify.

Mr. Salazar, whose department oversees the MMS, said last week he planned to reorganize the agency, splitting the MMS's revenue-collecting officials from those who are supposed to ensure compliance with safety and environmental rules. Mr. Obama last week ordered a review of the MMS.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked during a hearing Monday why the MMS didn't require BP PLC to have a better plan for dealing with a deep-water blowout such as the one that led to the Gulf spill.

"Until those questions are answered satisfactorily, I don't see how our government can allow any new deep-water wells to be permitted and drilled," Mr. Lieberman said.

Officials from the MMS chose not to appear at the hearing, according to Mr. Lieberman.

Mr. Oynes, whose duties include administering the agency's offshore oil and gas program, announced in an email to colleagues Monday that he would leave the agency at the end of the month, according to documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

An administration official said Monday, "This was Chris Oynes's decision to retire after almost 35 years of public service. Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, he approached leadership at MMS and announced he would be retiring on June 30, and today he told his colleagues he would be accelerating his retirement."

A call to Mr. Oynes's office Monday was not returned.

BP, the British oil giant that owns the leaking well, started drilling the first relief well earlier this month to stop the undersea spill, and began work on a second relief well on Sunday. It expects the first to be completed in early August.

BP said Monday it hopes to double to 2,000 barrels a day the amount of oil it is siphoning through a pipe inserted into the leaking well during the weekend.

BP's estimate is that the well is leaking at a rate of 5,000 barrels a day, but a number of scientists have questioned that figure, saying that the flow could be as much as five times that rate.

Depending on the flow rate, the spill could prove to be the biggest ever in U.S. territory, surpassing the amount of oil released into Alaska's Prince William Sound by the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

(Siobhan Hughes contributed to this article.) 

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