"From the beginning, the effort has been bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials, as well as BP. As a result, officials and experts say, the damage to the coastline and wildlife has been worse than it might have been if the response had been faster and orchestrated more effectively." - The New York Times, 6/15/10
The House Republican Conference, along with the Committees on Natural Resources, Energy and Commerce, Oversight and Government Reform, and Transpiration and Infrastructure, have compiled the following questions and answers and timeline surrounding the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill tragedy and the Administration's response.
April 20, 2010: Explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig tragically kills 11 workers.
April 24, 2010: First oil leak is revealed by the Administration.
April 28, 2010: Interior Secretary Salazar travels to BP Command Center in Houston.
April 29, 2010: Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano announces a "Spill of National Significance" and President Obama makes first public remarks on the disaster.
April 30, 2010: President deploys senior Administration officials to Gulf region and makes remarks. Louisiana National Guard activated.
May 2, 2010: President visits Gulf for the first time.
May 4, 2010: Cabinet officials brief Members of Congress for the first time.
May 11, 2010: Louisiana requests emergency permission from the federal government to dredge barriers and construct berms.
May 27, 2010: Federal government grants Louisiana partial permission to dredge.
May 28, 2010: President makes his second visit to the Gulf and states, "I am the president and the buck stops with me."
May 29, 2010: BP announces that its "top kill" plan to fill the well had failed.
June 2, 2010: Obama Administration finally approves of Louisiana's plan to dredge and tells BP to pay $360 million for five new berms. The Justice Department announces a criminal investigation into the explosion and spill.
June 14, 2010: Senate Democrats write to BP calling on the company to set up a $20 billion, independently administered escrow fund to compensate victims of the spill.
June 15, 2010: President Obama makes Oval Office speech on oil spill and uses crisis to push climate change legislation.
June 16, 2010: President Obama meets with BP executives at the White House.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
How much oil is spilling into the Gulf of Mexico?
Answer: As of late Tuesday, June 15, 2010, government officials estimated that 35,000-60,000 barrels per day are spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. All told, as of Monday, June 14, 2010, estimates suggest that between 40 million and 115 million gallons of oil have been spilled-far exceeding the Exxon Valdez disaster.
What is the current status of efforts to stop the leak?
Answer: BP is currently drilling two relief wells intended to stop the leak. In the interim, BP is capturing approximately 15,000 barrels of oil per day, developing additional containment capacity and bringing additional vessels to the region, using dispersants, and conducting in-situ burns. The leak likely will not be stopped for good until relief wells are complete in August 2010.
How does the Oil Pollution Act work?
Answer: The Oil Pollution Act makes the owners or operators of vessels and facilities that discharge oil into the environment responsible for repaying economic damages that result from the spill. The law also limits responsible parties' liability in certain situations, and allows claims over and above that liability to be paid from an oil industry-financed trust fund, the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF). Oil industry financing of the OSLTF maintains the law's "polluter pays" principles. The balance in the Fund now stands at more than $1.5 billion.
The Coast Guard is the federal on-scene coordinator for the response to marine spills. For spills that require more advanced response, a unified command center is established by the federal agency serving as the on-scene coordinator. A unified command center includes representatives from federal, state and local governments and the responsible parties. As spills become larger and more complex, multiple local command centers can be set up, as well as regional response commands and, in the case of a Spill of National Significance, a National Incident Command.
What is the president's legal responsibility to respond to the oil spill?
Answer: The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) provides direct presidential authority for oil spill response. Section 4201 of OPA provides the president with the specific authority and responsibility to remove oil from navigable waters and adjoining shorelines, including directing or monitoring all federal, state, and private actions. Clearly, by law the president is ultimately responsible for leading the oil spill clean-up, although the responsible company will pay for the response effort and taxpayers must not be left on the hook.
Who are the responsible parties for this spill and what are they required to pay under current law?
Answer: The law delineates between various potential sources of oil spills (tankers, offshore facilities, etc.) There are two in this incident: the Transocean-owned Deepwater Horizon rig (one) that was drilling BP's well (two). The Coast Guard has already named both BP and Transocean as "responsible parties" for this oil spill-under OPA they are 100 percent responsible for all cleanup costs, including those incurred by government agencies.
As "responsible parties," BP and Transocean are also responsible for paying economic and environmental damages-on which OPA places a liability cap of $75 million per incident. Federal regulators could determine that this explosion, sinking and ongoing spill involves multiple "incidents" each subject to a separate $75 million liability cap. Most importantly, if a responsible party is found to be grossly negligent, engaged in willful misconduct or to have violated regulations then the $75 million cap no longer applies and the responsible parties are responsible for all costs.
BP has made public commitments promising to cover damages in excess of this cap-and there has been a bipartisan demand by Republicans and Democrats that BP be fully responsible for all costs of this spill. There is a clear need for Congress to review raising these caps, but care must be taken to ensure informed action is taken-arbitrary or hasty increases could have unknown, negative consequences that put companies out of business, cost jobs and harm our economy.
How are costs for cleanup efforts and damages paid under the Oil Pollution Act?
Answer: Claimants are required to file a claim with the responsible party, BP. If the claim is denied, the individual may submit the claim to the Coast Guard's National Pollution Funds Center which can use money held within the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to cover eligible costs. Under this scenario, the Coast Guard would make a reimbursement request to BP and all recouped funds would be deposited in the Fund.
What about an independent escrow fund?
Answer: The White House and Democrats in Congress have proposed forcing BP to set up an independently-administered escrow fund to compensate victims of the spill. Congressional Democrats have said they want it to be a $20 billion fund while the White House has not yet named a dollar number. In his Oval Office address to the nation, President Obama said that he would direct BP to "set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed." BP subsequently agreed to a $20 billion fund to be administered by Kenneth Feinberg, the Administration’s “pay czar.”
Would waiving the Jones Act help the response effort?
Answer: Yes. The Jones Act requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flagged ships, constructed and owned in the U.S. and crewed by U.S. residents. Waiving the Jones Act, like President Bush did after Hurricane Katrina, would allow specialized foreign ships to participate in more of the spill response effort.
Without waiving the Jones Act, the U.S. is missing out on real, available resources. For example, Sweden has three skimming ships which could be utilized, Norway has offered a third of its spill response equipment, and the Netherlands offered skimming ships, but the Administration refused them. Additionally, according to Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Sen. George LeMieux (R-FL), there are more than 2,000 skimmer vessels available, but only 32 are deployed off the Florida coast. Rep. Miller and Sen. LeMieux have asked President Obama to waive portions of the Jones Act, which LeMieux says is partially responsible for the lack of international aid.
It seems many aspects of the response have relied on taking action and then seeing if it works. Does the Oil Pollution Act authorize research that might have answered some of these operational questions before the Gulf crisis?
Answer: The act establishes an interagency oil spill research committee and authorizes $27.5 million in oil spill research. Virtually none of that money has ever been appropriated, and many important questions about how to best respond to oil spills remain unanswered.
When did the administration become aware of the spill potential as a result of the Deepwater explosion?
Answer: From the Oversight and Government Reform Committee's review of Coast Guard logs, it appears that on Day One, on-scene responders notified senior officials that the blowout preventer was not working and estimated a potential spill of 8,000 barrels per day. These logs appear to contradict the official timeline posted on the White House blog.
What federal assets has the administration committed to the response effort?
Answer: The White House blog is vague and does not distinguish between federally-owned and privately-owned assets. From what GOP staff on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee have uncovered thus far, there are relatively few federally-owned assets involved. The vast majority are owned and operated by local small businesses under BP contract.
Who within the Minerals Management Service (MMS) reviewed and approved BP's spill response plan?
Answer: It appears that BP's approved plan was riddled with inaccuracies. This included not only a gross underestimate of what a potential spill may entail and outdated contact information. The response plan also did not compensate for the well-known loop current and even listed a response expert who had been deceased for some time. MMS has refused to cooperate with GOP Oversight and Government Reform staff to make responsible MMS officials available for transcribed interviews.
Who at the Interior Department authorized an apparent manipulation of the peer-reviewed assessment used by the White House to justify the recent six-month drilling moratorium?
Answer: The scientists who peer reviewed the document claim that the Interior Department inserted language recommending a moratorium after they had signed off on the document. Secretary Salazar has apologized, but he has yet to explain the political slight-of-hand involved in promoting the moratorium.
Who at MMS inspected and signed off on the Deepwater Horizon as safe and operational prior to the explosion? Answer: An Interior Department Inspector General report has revealed that field inspectors rubberstamped inspection papers submitted by oil companies. While there is no indication that rig inspectors falsified Deepwater Horizon's safety inspections, the revelation casts considerable doubt upon MMS's credibility.
What should be done to reform the Minerals Management Service (MMS)?
Answer: There is bipartisan consensus that fundamental changes need to be made to MMS to ensure American-made energy production is the safest in the world, though it's important to learn from this spill so that informed decisions are made. Any changes must be done right and thoughtfully in order to protect the environment, taxpayers and American jobs.
What will be the impact of President Obama's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling?
Answer: The Obama Administration's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling could have a devastating economic impact on Gulf Coast communities who are already suffering. Deepwater wells generate 80 percent of the Gulf's oil production and 45 percent of its natural gas. The moratorium will affect 33 oil rigs, and companies have already started moving those rigs out of the Gulf to foreign waters where they are allowed to drill. According to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, direct and indirect job losses resulting from a moratorium on offshore drilling could range from 42,000 to 120,000. A report by the Energy Information Administration states that a six-month moratorium on drilling would cut oil production by 70,000 barrels per day in 2011. Additionally, the Administration has put a de facto moratorium on shallow water drilling as well, as new permits will be on hold until new safety regulations and inspection procedures are in place. The loss of energy production will increase U.S. dependence on foreign oil, which will be transported by large oil tankers from foreign countries to the U.S. coastline, increasing the risk of spills and environmental damage.