Gulf oil spill could usher in new safety agency

— The presidential panel investigating the massive Gulf oil spill will likely recommend to President Barack Obama next year new ways for both the federal government and the oil industry to oversee offshore drilling safety.

Experts with the presidential oil spill commission on Thursday recommended that oil and gas companies drilling off the U.S. coast set up a safety institute similar to the one the nuclear industry formed after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. The institute would address lapses that led to the Gulf spill.

They also said the federal government needed an independent agency to ensure offshore workers, drilling rigs and production platforms operate safely.

The staff recommendations, and the panel members' reactions, are the first indications of where the commission is headed as it prepares to release its final report to the President in January.

The commission on Thursday said that the disaster that erupted from the Macondo well resulted from questionable decisions and management failures by three companies: BP PLC, the well owner and operator; Transocean, Ltd., the rig's owner; and Halliburton Co., which was hired to mix and pump cement that is critical to securing the well against a blowout.

"This perception that Macondo was the result of one company's decisions does not stand," said William K. Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President George H.W. Bush and the panel's co-chair. "It has been conclusively and indisputably established that we have a bigger problem than that."

The panel found 11 decisions made by these companies increased risk. Most saved time, and all but one had a safer alternative.

"All of these companies were involved — either as the primary decision maker, or in the decision-making process," said Robert Sears, the commission's senior science and engineering adviser. "To think these three companies screwed up like this bothers me."

The panel's staff called for a further separation of powers within the Interior Department, which renamed and reorganized its offshore drilling agency after the Gulf accident to split its billing and money-collecting duties from its enforcement of safety and environmental laws.

The new government safety agency — which could be within or outside the department — should be led by an engineer who would not be politically appointed, the experts said.

"This regulator would have one mandate — which is safety and the technical integrity of these facilities," said Shirley Neff, a senior analyst with the commission.

On the industry side, experts said the safety institute should not be led by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas association that drafts standards but also lobbies on behalf of the industry.

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Online:

National Oil Spill Commission: www.oilspillcommission.gov

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