May 23 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama, faced with growing criticism of the government’s response to the BP Plc oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, created a bipartisan commission to investigate the disaster.
Obama named Democrat Bob Graham, a former U.S. senator and Florida governor, and Republican William Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, to lead the probe. The commission will seek to assure the American people similar catastrophes will not recur, he said.
In his weekly address on the radio and Internet, Obama said the commission, created by executive order, will consider the “root causes” of the accident and find ways to “prevent a similar disaster from ever happening again.”
To work with Graham and Reilly, Obama said he will name five other commission members, directing them to report in six months with recommendations “on how we can prevent, and mitigate the impact of, any future spills” at offshore wells.
“We can only pursue offshore oil drilling if we have assurances that a disaster like the BP oil spill will not happen again,” Obama said. “This commission will, I hope, help provide those assurances so we can continue to seek a secure energy future.”
Coast Guard View
Admiral Thad Allen, the U.S. Coast Guard commandant directing the emergency response to the spill, said today on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he is confident BP is being honest with the Obama administration.
“I trust Tony Hayward,” Allen said of BP’s chief executive officer when asked if he trusted the company. “When I talk to him, I get an answer.”
Allen defended the administration’s response to the spill, saying the government and the oil industry are collaborating. “There is a lot of oversight going on there,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program today that “the government is doing everything humanly and technologically possible” and “the president has told the team to spare nothing in trying to cap this well.”
Earlier, on “Fox News Sunday,” former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said the administration took “so doggone long” to address the crisis. She raised the question of whether the Obama White House was too cozy with oil companies because they supported his campaign.
“I’m almost sure that the oil companies don’t consider the Obama administration a huge ally,” Gibbs said. “My suggestion to Sarah Palin would be to get slightly more informed.”
Gibbs was asked if a criminal investigation of BP was possible.
“The Justice Department has been down in the Gulf to look at it and to gather information on this,” Gibbs said.
He denied that this could be Obama’s version of Hurricane Katrina, where former President George W. Bush was criticized for not doing enough quickly enough.
“We were there immediately,” Gibbs said.
“We’ve had direct oversight and involvement from government agencies from the very first hours onwards,” Robert Dudley, managing director of BP, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “Nobody wants to shut this off more than we do and learn what happened so this never happens anywhere, to anyone anywhere in the world again.”
Siphoning Some Oil
After the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank last month, BP estimates that 5,000 barrels of oil per day have been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. BP has succeeded in siphoning some oil from the spill, 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) below the surface, and pumping it to ships.
In his address, Obama called the oil spill an “environmental disaster” and said the nation’s “best minds are using the world’s best technology” to try to stop the leak. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson is scheduled to visit the Gulf today to monitor her agency’s response and speak with residents.
Obama said the accident was caused by a breakdown in responsibility on the part of London-based BP, Geneva-based Transocean Ltd., the company that leased the rig to BP, and Houston-based Halliburton Co.
“We will continue to hold the relevant companies accountable” for stopping the flow, repairing the damage, and repaying financial losses, he said.
Obama also said the federal government should be held accountable.
Enforcing the Law
“If the laws on our books are inadequate to prevent such an oil spill, or if we didn’t enforce those laws, I want to know it,” Obama said. “I want to know what worked and what didn’t work in our response to the disaster, and where oversight of the oil and gas industry broke down.”
Obama has already announced plans to split the revenue and regulatory functions of the Minerals Management Service to prevent conflicts of interest, ordered inspections of all deepwater drilling operations in the gulf and issued a moratorium on new drilling.
“But we need to do a lot more to protect the health and safety of our people, to safeguard the quality of our air and water and to preserve the natural beauty and bounty of America,” Obama said.
BP said it will cooperate with the investigation.
“We share the goal of the president and the public to know what happened to cause this accident and what regulatory and industry changes are needed to help prevent something like this from happening again,” BP CEO Hayward said an e-mailed statement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement that “in addition to the companies that were drilling, it is important also to know what the administration approved.”
“We know that this administration approved the site. We know that this administration approved the spill response plan,” McConnell said. “Hopefully in the course of the testimony we’ll be able to figure out what went wrong not only with the companies themselves, but with the oversight of the companies.”
In the Republican weekly address, Louisiana Senator David Vitter called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to immediately start work -- “with BP, by the way, appropriately footing the bill” -- dredging material from rivers and deltas to build up barrier islands to help protect the coast from oil.
Vitter said Democrats in Congress “have rushed to create media events for television cameras instead of devoting full attention to stopping the immediate problem.”
He also said he is working with other Gulf Coast lawmakers to raise the amount that those responsible for spills can be required to pay. He said the proposed cap would be $150 million, double the current limit, or a sum equal to the company’s profits for the last four quarters, whichever is greater.
The measure would also encourage research on ways to cap wells and develop booms to prevent the spread of oil in rough seas.
“That would make offshore drilling safer, smarter and more reliable,” Vitter said.
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