National Oil Spill Commission’s Findings, Recommendations, and Implications for the Arctic

The Presidentially appointed Oil Spill Commission released "Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling" on 11 January 2011. The report, issued after six months of investigations and public hearings, addresses the causes and consequences of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and proposes reforms to reduce the risk of future large-scale spills.

The Commission found that the Deepwater Horizon spill was foreseeable and preventable, yet neither industry nor government was prepared to contain a deepwater well blowout. On the industry side, human errors, engineering mistakes, and corporate management failures in risk evaluation and safety procedures played key roles in the accident. The Commission concluded that the errors were not the function of a single company, but revealed the management failures and inadequate safety procedures of corporations with significant presence in offshore drilling throughout the world.

The Commission also found that regulation by the Mineral Management Service (MMS) had not kept pace with the industry's technological advancements. Funding for the agency had remained static during two decades of dramatic growth in deepwater drilling, and agency responsibilities to ensure safety were compromised by the competing mission to facilitate offshore leasing and drilling. (Note: On 18 June 2010 the agency name was changed from MSS to Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement [BOEMRE]).

The Commission concluded that with major changes in government and industry practices, deepwater drilling could be done safely. Recommended changes include: creating an independent safety agency within the Department of Interior, establishing a risk-based approach to regulation, accelerating scientific and technical research to inform regulatory decision making, and providing adequate and predictable funding for regulatory oversight by establishing regulatory fees on new and existing oil leases.

The Commission also addressed implications for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, a region with significant potential for domestic resource development and for offshore drilling by other arctic nations. The Commission recommended that a comprehensive research effort providing baseline ecosystem data be implemented on a time-frame that will inform decision making on resource exploration and development.

The remote and harsh conditions of the Arctic increase the risk and complexity of offshore drilling and oil spill response. Federal emergency response capabilities in the region are very limited; the U.S. Coast Guard operations base nearest to the Chukchi lease area is nearly 1000 miles away on Kodiak Island, and two of its three icebreakers are currently non-operational. Recommendations from the Commission for the Arctic are as follows:

  1. The Department of Interior should ensure that industry's containment and response plans are adequate for each stage of development, and that the underlying financial and technical capabilities have been demonstrated in the Arctic.

  2. The U.S. Coast Guard and oil companies should delineate their respective responsibilities in the event of a spill, including search and rescue, and then must build and deploy the necessary capabilities.

  3. Congress should provide the resources to establish U.S. Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic, based on the U.S. Coast Guard's analysis of current and projected gaps in capacity.

For more information about the Commission's findings and recommendations, see the full report: http://www.oilspillcommission.gov/final-report.