Obama, Congress, industry get mixed grades two years after BP oil spill in Gulf

The Obama administration and oil companies have made progress on drilling safety since the massive BP spill, but Congress has shown little leadership, members of a disbanded commission that probed the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster say.

All seven members of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling issued a report card Tuesday that tracks the progress of recommendations they made in a sweeping report on the disaster in early 2011.


They handed out grades for progress on safety, spill response, environmental restoration and other issues. The result: Congress gets a D, the oil-and-gas industry gets a C-plus, and the Obama administration gets a B.

“[W]e are encouraged by the advances industry, the Department of the Interior, and other federal agencies have made in the two years since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe to improve the safety of offshore drilling and the nation’s readiness to respond to any spills that do occur,” their new report states. “However, much more needs to be done, particularly by Congress which has yet to enact any legislation responding to the explosion and spill.”

Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and William Reilly — a Republican who led the Environmental Protection Agency under former President George H.W. Bush — served as chairmen of the independent commission that President Obama created in May of 2010 as oil from BP’s blown-out Macondo well was still pouring into the Gulf.

The commission disbanded in March of 2011, but its members, who say they don’t want the issue to fade from the spotlight, this year announced they were reuniting as “Oil Spill Commission Action” to ensure their work doesn’t just gather dust.

The new report from Oil Spill Commission Action arrives almost two years after the April 20, 2010, blow-out of BP’s Macondo well and the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The disaster killed 11 workers and poured more than four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was tamed months later.

The report card cheers the Interior Department's steps to reorganize oversight and toughen drilling safety rules, even though the overhaul fell short of some of the recommendations.

“Although the two new bureaus—the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE)—are not completely independent, as the Commission urged, the Department provided strong budgetary and operational rationales for the decision to structure these two new entities as it did,” it states.

But the members of the disbanded commission say that there’s more to be done. For instance, the report card notes that Interior has not yet issued a regulation that encapsulates the commission’s recommendations for standards for subsea blowout preventers.

Turning to energy companies, the report cites “significant” steps by the oil industry, including creation of the Center for Offshore Safety, but notes the group is not independent of the American Petroleum Institute, a major lobbying organization.

The former commission members saved their toughest words for Congress, which they say has fallen short on a number of fronts, such as failing to codify the overhaul of Interior’s offshore safety arm.

While lawmakers have provided funding increases for drilling regulation and increased inspection fees, the report notes that other agencies that have a role in offshore oversight have not received similar increases.

In addition, the commission members say Congress has not heeded its call for a dedicated funding stream that puts the costs of leasing and permitting review on the industry.

“Nor has Congress taken action to adjust the existing unrealistic limits on liability and response funding,” the report states, adding that lawmakers have also not reached the finish line on bipartisan legislation to steer 80 percent of penalty money from the spill into Gulf Coast restoration.

Overall, the report is a broad survey of progress on spill response planning, drilling safety, preparing for drilling in tough Arctic conditions (letter grade: C) and other issues.

The “spill response and containment” area gets a B-minus.

“Industry and most federal agencies are also making significant improvements in their ability to contain and respond to offshore oil spills. The nation is certainly in a much better situation than it was two years ago. However, the efficacy of these modifications under the harsh conditions of deep water drilling still needs to be demonstrated and, again, Congress has provided little support for these efforts,” the report states.

While the new report is critical in several areas, it’s far gentler than a separate two-year report card that the environmental group Oceana, which opposes offshore drilling, issued on Tuesday.

Oceana hands out a mix of Fs and a few Ds in its survey of the federal, congressional and industry response to the spill.

“Politics continues to triumph over common sense. It’s outrageous that so little progress has been made to make offshore drilling safer,” said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director at Oceana, in a statement.

“Without stronger regulations, and better inspection and enforcement, oil companies will continue to put profits over safety and there will be more problems,” she said.

But a top industry official said oil companies have substantially improved their performance since the BP disaster.

“We've learned from the Macondo incident and others and have steadily improved our practices as an industry. We're in a much better position as an industry today than we were a few years ago,” Chevron Corp. CEO John Watson told USA Today.