On Nov. 22, the day oil and gas industry representatives met with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in Houma to see if the federal government would relax its moratorium on deep-water drilling (it didn't), the National Commission on the BP/Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill issued its first two preliminary reports. Conclusion: There was plenty of blame to be spread within the ranks of both BP and President Barack Obama's administration. Among the findings:
• "The oil and gas industry was unprepared to respond to a deep-water blowout, and the federal government was similarly unprepared to provide meaningful supervision."
• "If BP had devoted a fraction of the resources it expended on the top kill to obtaining a more accurate early estimate of the flow rate, it might have better focused its efforts on the containment strategies that were more likely to succeed."
• The government's estimate of the gusher was 5,000 barrels per day; BP's estimate was 14,000 barrels per day. The "top kill" solution of pumping mud into the hole was acknowledged to be ineffective with a flow rate of more than 15,000 barrels a day — and the actual total in May was 60,000 barrels a day — 12 times the government estimate.
• The U.S. government and BP engaged in finger pointing, with the Obama administration feeling the oil giant relied on best-case scenarios in the containment operation, while BP felt the government's input slowed down progress.
• In June, the government began calling in BP's industry competitors for advice on conference calls of 30 or more participants, one of whom told the commission the calls were unorganized, had no predetermined agenda and that oil company executives were chary of leaving themselves open to legal liability.
• Of the five oil giants, neither ConocoPhillips nor Chevron has spent any money at all on cleanup development technologies in the last 20 years.
"Adequate public funds must be provided [for cleanup technologies], and these funds must be commensurate with the job that is to be done," the report concluded. "Placing a man on the moon is a job which could not have been funded in the tens of millions of dollars. Although the development of a technology for handling oil spills in the open ocean is not the same order of magnitude as developing a technology to place a man on the moon or to build a nuclear energy system, the principle is the same." The words were taken directly from former President Richard Nixon's Panel on Oil Spills report, written in 1969.
The seven-member commission was chaired by former Florida Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham and William K. Reilly of the private equity fund Aqua International Partners (and a board member of ConocoPhillips). The commission will hold public meetings in December and is expected to release official recommendations in January 2011. To read the preliminary reports, go to www.oilspillcommission.gov. — Kevin Allman