In the next few days, President Obama will announce the formation of an independent commission to investigate the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. The commission will likely be similar to previous commissions convened by presidents to investigate the space shuttle Challenger disaster and the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.
The commission convened will likely face tremendous pressure from BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and other oil and energy company interests who wish to ensure the commission organized by the Obama Administration does not come to a decision that puts further constraints on offshore drilling or drilling for oil altogether.
McClatchy Newspapers reported May 18, 2010, that BP is withholding facts about the oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico and the Obama Administration is allowing BP to withhold facts. The story said:
"… the results of tests on the extent of workers’ exposure to evaporating oil or from the burning of crude over the gulf, even though researchers say that data is crucial in determining whether the conditions are safe.
Moreover, the company isn’t monitoring the extent of the spill and only reluctantly released videos of the spill site that could give scientists a clue to the amount of the oil in gulf.
BP’s role as the primary source of information has raised questions about whether the government should intervene to gather such data and to publicize it and whether an adequate cleanup can be accomplished without the details of crude oil spreading across the gulf.
Private assurances to not follow all the data and testimony from workers, researchers, and scientists on the disaster may also be made so that information in any published report will have a limited negative impact on oil companies like BP.
Time constraints will likely be placed on the commission that will impact or hurry the work of the commission like time constraints did for the commission that investigated the Three Mile Island accident.
A "Supplemental View by Bruce Babbitt," former governor of Arizona who served on the commission that investigated the Three Mile Island accident stated:
"We had a real problem coming to grips with this issue because of the time constraints on examining the characteristics of other utilities operating nuclear power plants. I can, therefore, understand the difficulties in formulating a specific recommendation at this time.
Yet I must believe that our findings do support more than what we have said here by way of recommendations. We cannot simply urge the utility, industry, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to pay more attention to safety and to establish higher standards.
While this Commission has clearly addressed the institutional shortcomings of the NRC in its recommendations, it has not addressed the institutional problems of the industry."
The likelihood that the commission will not investigate the full extent of the accident and address the systematic or institutional failings of oil companies certainly exists.
The Three Mile Island Commission was a decent selection of individuals that combined a diversity of institutional perspectives. In addition to Babbitt, Patrick E. Haggerty, co-founder of Texas Instruments, Inc., Carolyn Lewis, Assoc. Prof. of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, Paul A. Marks, Vice President for Health Sciences and Frode Jensen Professor at Columbia University, Cora B. Marrett, Prof. of Sociology and Afro-American Studies at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, Lloyd McBride, President of the United Steelworkers of America, Harry C. McPherson, a partner with Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, and McPherson, Russell W. Peterson, President of the National Audubon Society, Thomas H. Pigford, Prof. and Chairman of the Dept. of Nuclear Engineering at U.C. Berkeley, Theodore B. Taylor, visiting lecturer at the Dept. of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University, and Anne D. Trunk, a resident of Middletown, Pennsylvania, all served on the Commission.
Voices present on that commission that should be present on the one convened by the Obama Administration include a health scientist, a voice who can speak about the impact oil has on wildlife, a union leader who can speak on behalf of the workers, an engineer who can discuss the reality of oil drilling, and, most importantly, a resident from the Gulf coast who can testify on the impact of the oilrig disaster in his or her community.
There is a small likelihood that the Obama Administration convenes a truly diverse panel on the oil rig explosion and leak in the Gulf. As Politicoreports, there are at least two investigations that have been started on the disaster: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is leading a study of the causes of the oil rig explosion; Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is working on how to split up the Minerals Management Service (MMS) into two agencies so oil drilling can be better regulated and reviewing the rules for drilling. Those investigations may be continued and finished and become the extent of the commission’s investigations; whether new, original investigations are launched for the purposes of a comprehensive public report on the disaster is probably unlikely given the track record of presidential commissions in the past decade.
Finally, it is possible that voices will not be as independent as the administration would like us to believe. Players appointed to investigate will likely be from institutions that sound like good organizations that conduct good research and studies. Upon further investigation, they will probably be revealed to have ties to the very companies or industry being investigated.
The public should hope the Obama Administration surprises those concerned about the future of the Gulf of Mexico, the people in communities on the Gulf coast, the nature and wildlife in the region, the wellbeing of workers who are employed by energy companies, and the impact on oil on planet Earth. But, the reality is that President Obama made an announcement calling for new areas to be open for offshore drilling weeks before the oil rig disaster.
Be weary of the fact that companies could use this disaster to re-brand their companies, regain the confidence of politicians, up their funding of key political leaders in shrewd manners that are not altogether obvious when campaign spending reports are disclosed, and continue to obstruct movement towards dependency on clean, renewable energy in this country.
The oil rig disaster was tragic. The aftermath could be even more tragic if the people are not vigilantly following the work of all those involved in investigating the tragedy.
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