Presidential commission to probe Gulf oil spill

Panel will investigate issues related to the spill and its aftermath, including rig safety and regulatory regimes at the local, state, and federal levels.

4 min read

HOUSTON/COCODRIE, La.--President Barack Obama will create a presidential commission to probe the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and energy giant BP said on Monday it had "turned the corner" in its efforts to contain it.

London-based BP said its latest "quick fix"--a mile-long siphon tube deployed by undersea robots down to the leaking well--was capturing about a fifth of the oil leaking from the ruptured well. Officials cautioned that the tube is helping contain the oil but will not stop the flow.

"I do feel that we have, for the first time, turned the corner in this challenge," BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said in Florida.

BP's stock rose more than 2 percent in London on the news but later shed its gains.

Investors have knocked $30 billion off BP's value over the spill, which followed the April 20 rig explosion that killed 11 workers and the fallout it faces is ramping up.

The commission, which Obama will establish with an executive order, will be similar to those that looked into the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, an official said.

It will investigate issues related to the spill and its aftermath, including rig safety and regulatory regimes at the local, state, and federal levels.

The federal government's oversight role, environmental protections, and the "structure and functions" of the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency that has been heavily criticized for its regulatory practices, also will be on the panel's agenda.

With a shakeup of the agency imminent, Chris Oynes, the top official overseeing its offshore oil and gas drilling, announced he would retire at the end of the month.

Still, lawmakers and Gulf Coast residents braced for an ecological disaster that could eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska's coast.

"The problem is this blowout is putting more oil in the water in one and a half days than have been put in this water in the last decade. That is startling," Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu told a Senate committee hearing.

'People are freaking out'
While the U.S. Gulf Coast has so far been spared a massive landfall of heavy oil, small amounts in the form of surface sheen and tar balls have come ashore in outlying parts of the coastline of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

"People are freaking out. They see the news and think oil is everywhere, but it is not," said Michael Dorie, co-owner of Wild Native and Five Rivers Delta Safaris, which takes people on eco-tours of Alabama's Mobile Tensaw Delta.

"If it all dries up and disappears, well the highlight of my tours is wildlife and pretty flowers. Take that away and my tour becomes just a boat ride. If people see oil slicked birds, how many more will not come?" he added.

BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said the company hoped the siphon device could help contain half of the oil escaping from the well. It estimates that about 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters) are spewing forth.

"We're getting a little over a thousand barrels of oil a day up through that tube and over the course of today we'll be trying to increase that rate." he told reporters.

But there are fears that even if the leak is slowed or stopped, the massive oil slick in the Gulf could run into the "loop current" that could take it down to the Florida Keys and even up the East Coast.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that with light winds forecast from the south and the west in coming days, "ocean models indicate that any tar balls leading the southern edge of the plume could begin moving more to the south west and potentially into the loop current."

"We know that the oil has not entered the loop current at this time," Coast Guard Admiral Mary Landry told a briefing. "There may be some leading edge sheen that's getting closer to the loop current, but this spill has not entered the loop current proper."

BP's next move could involve a so-called "top kill" option using undersea robots to try to shoot heavy "mud," a mixture of synthetic materials, into the blown-out well to form a barrier to prevent oil and gas from escaping.

This may be combined with a "junk shot" to inject material like golf balls and pieces of rubber tire, into the ruptured well's failed "blowout preventer" to seal off oil flow.

The disaster has hurt BP's image, already tarnished in the United States from a 2006 spill in Alaska from a BP-owned pipeline and 2005 fire at the company's Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 180.

A study released by the Center for Public Integrity showed two BP-owned U.S. refineries accounted for 97 percent of all flagrant safety violations found in the refining industry by government inspectors over the past three years.

"The only thing you can conclude is that BP has a serious, systemic safety problem in their company," Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, was quoted as saying in a statement from the group.

"They're a big company. They'll probably change their name and start over," said Drake Dupre, 48, a Louisiana shrimp boat captain. "We've got one life. We can't start over again."

U.S. lawmakers are studying raising a cap on corporate liability for oil spills, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has rejected a proposed cap of $10 billion for oil companies to cover damages from oil spills as "inadequate."