Lopsided Spill Commission Doesn’t Single Out BP

by Lou Dolinar

The While House oil-spill commission made it official today: The entire oil industry, not BP, is evil and potentially the source of another Deepwater-sized spill. Thus the entire oil industry, which has already been punished by the administration with its drilling moratorium and slowdown in permitting, should be punished further with massive new regulations and fees.

Those conclusions were virtually predetermined when the administration appointed a panel heavily stacked with academics and environmentalists. And those findings are wrong.

Why? A simple reality check: Other companies drilling in deep water in the Gulf have not had well blow-outs. But in BP’s case, the commission’s own studies show not just one mistake but a series of failed judgment calls by BP officials. Responsibility is specific, not collective. We don’t shut down the airline industry when a plane crashes, and we shouldn’t shut down the oil business.

From the beginning, BP’s peers in the majors — who were not represented in any way on the panel — have contended that BP’s horrendous long-term company safety record makes it an outlier and a rogue, a view echoed by some independent journalists. Highlighting the “rogue” view, just three days ago a leak forced BP, the main stakeholder in Alaska’s Alyeska Pipeline consortium, to shut down the pipeline, which transports 15 percent of American oil production.

Indeed, petroleum experts the administration consulted before it banned drilling in the Gulf actually opposed the move. They said it would not just cost jobs but also punish companies with good safety records. At the time, several Senate Republicans called for hearings into the administration’s distortions, which were so bad that Interior Secretary Salazar was forced to publicly apologize to the scientists and engineers he should have relied on. Those hearings should go forward in the House, and focus in particular on a comparison of BP’s practices with the rest of the industry. They should also focus on the economic impact of further regulation.

Some of the commission’s recommendations — for example, increasing the liability cap for offshore drilling — will require legislation and are likely a dead issue with the shift of power in Congress. While the administration can implement some recommendations by continuing to tie Gulf drilling up in bureaucratic knots, the looming reality of $4-a-gallon gasoline in an election year may outweigh any ideological distaste for Big Oil. With any luck, the commission’s report will disappear with little trace, just like the spill.

— Lou Dolinar is a retired columnist and reporter for Newsday. He is currently working on a book about what really happened in the Deepwater Horizon spill.

editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.