Assessing the Gulf Coast Response

Published: Jun 10, 2011

Author: Array

For more than a year, the House Oversight Committee has been investigating the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster that took the lives of 11 workers and caused one of the worst environmental and economic disasters in U.S. history.

The evidence from this fact-based investigation demonstrates the negative consequences when an administration fails to adequately assess the extent of a crisis or the response necessary to mitigate it.

Indeed, a pattern of poor judgment and bad choices hindered response efforts, slowed a recovery and upended the lives of millions of Americans. A report of the committee’s investigation ­– released earlier this month — analyzes in careful detail the policy choices and administrative failures that followed the explosion in the Gulf.

First, committee investigators have learned that the president, faced with the option of federalizing the disaster response to supplement the work of state and local governments, chose instead to abdicate that authority to BP and correspondingly limit the role of state and local responders.

In fact, the law specifically prescribes the means to coordinate and facilitate a federal disaster recovery effort of this scale and still hold BP responsible for paying the costs. By failing to invoke the most relevant statutory guidelines, however, the president fostered an environment of confusion, conflict and exhaustion for primary responders.

Indeed, official actions after the spill lead many to believe that the administration deemed managing the disaster recovery effort too politically risky, given the president’s sagging poll numbers at the time. It appears that the administration granted BP — the very company that was primarily responsible for the explosion — the authority to direct the recovery effort. Understandably, first responders at the state and local level have reported to congressional investigators that BP’s objectives often seemed at odds with the welfare of Gulf Coast residents.

Even more damaging on a long-term scale, the administration imposed an expansive moratorium on offshore energy development. For six months, not a single drop of oil flowed from more than 30 safe deepwater rigs. According to an internal administration memorandum obtained by the committee, the vast majority of deepwater rigs inspected by regulators after the BP explosion “had no infractions.” Nevertheless, the administration punished every drilling operation because of the carelessness of one negligent company.

Eventually, a federal district court stopped the department from enforcing the ban in a decision upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The administration then replaced the hard ban with a virtual permitorium. To date, federal regulators have granted only 15 deepwater permits — 13 of which simply allow operations to resume on previously approved rigs.

Meanwhile, the administration has issued a series of new drilling regulations. The effect of this regulatory chokehold has meant that 12 rigs, thus far, have already left the Gulf for operations in other countries. Five of these deepwater rigs are now in African waters, and two others have begun drilling in Brazil and French Guiana. With their departure, the American economy has lost thousands of jobs at a time of paralyzing unemployment.

Finally, committee investigators have examined the administration’s handling of the reorganization of the Minerals Management Service, the regulatory authority charged with overseeing offshore drilling before the Deepwater Horizon disaster. On May 11, 2010, just a few weeks after the spill began, the administration announced its intent to restructure MMS. Just eight days later, the interior secretary eliminated MMS and transferred offshore oversight responsibilities to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

With no apparent reference to years of recommendations and numerous studies by the Government Accountability Office and other federal auditors, the administration hastily shifted the bureaucracy without addressing the systemic causes of fraud, lax oversight, and poor management. This massive reorganization — at a time when MMS was facing significant challenges associated with the cause of the BP oil pill — may have created more problems than it solved. A recent GAO report noted that the Interior Department “may lack the resources and skills it needs to … meet routine responsibilities while reorganizing the agency responsible for offshore oil and gas activities.”

In other words, the reorganization plan effectively serves to distract federal regulators from their primary responsibilities while they adjust to the administration’s impulsive bureaucratic tinkering.

These bad choices have effectively prolonged the Gulf Coast recovery and added burdens to the many Americans whose livelihoods have been destroyed in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon. One year later, it is time for the administration to reopen our natural resources to needed exploration and reassess its hurried restructuring of the agencies responsible for ensuring safety and efficiency of the drilling rigs off our shores.

Only then can the Gulf Coast economy begin to truly recover and put Americans back to work.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.