In the months following the Gulf oil spill last April, a group of experts has searched for answers. Members of the Duke community were presented with first-hand insight into the investigation Monday night.
William Reilly, co-chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, discussed the causes and consequences of the spill, as well as the findings of the commission’s report, during a presentation in Reynolds Industries Theater. The commission released its final report Jan. 11.
President Barack Obama appointed Reilly to co-chair the commission with Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., in May. The commission’s lack of subpoena power within the oil industry was an initial concern, Reilly said, but this did not prevent the commission from gathering testimony. He attributed the commission’s success to its non-adversarial approach to dealing with oil companies.
“An important way in which we proceeded was to show respect for those who spoke before us and for the companies themselves,” Reilly said. “This was not 9/11, though our commission was often compared to [the 9/11 Commission]. Nobody intentionally killed anyone. This was not evil. These were the blunders of well meaning men that had fatal consequences—there’s a big difference.”
Reilly comes from a three-pronged background, with roles in environmental organizations, public service and business. He served as president of the World Wildlife Fund from 1985 until his appointment in 1989 as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under former president George H.W. Bush. He is the founding partner of Aqua International Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm with interests in companies providing water and water-related products, and serves on the boards of multiple energy corporations, including ConocoPhillips. Reilly also chairs the Board of Advisors for Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
Nicholas Institute Director Timothy Profeta introduced President Richard Brodhead, who discussed the issues raised by the BP oil spill and the role of investigative commissions in response to various crises throughout history. Brodhead commended Reilly’s achievements, including his leadership of the EPA during the Exxon Valdez oil spill and his oversight of the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act, which included cap and trade legislation to combat acid rain.
“This man was born to head the commission he was named to this past year,” Brodhead said.
Reilly began by describing the role that the Nicholas Institute played in the commission’s report, calling its research on the restoration of the Gulf “considerable.”
As a result of the report’s findings, Reilly said he and Graham will advocate in Congress Wednesday for 80 percent of the government funds obtained from fines to be allocated to Gulf restoration projects.
The commission was not tasked with determining guilt in the oil spill, Reilly said, adding that the goal was instead to determine the causes of the spill and recommend improvement in the long term. The Department of Justice is, however, currently conducting criminal and civil investigations, he noted.
“The number of lives in these industries that were affected were very considerable and will take a long time [to recover], particularly the brand destruction,” he said.
Throughout its investigation, the commission questioned whether the Gulf spill was a result of BP’s recent pattern of problems, which includes the deadly Texas City refinery explosion of 2005 and the 2006 Alaskan oil spill which dumped 5,000 barrels of crude oil into Alaskan waters.
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Reilly noted, though, that the report concluded BP was not solely to blame.
“We have here not the blunder of a rogue company, but the serious faulty decisions of three,” Reilly said.
Halliburton, an oilfield services corporation, provided faulty cement to seal the oil pipeline and Transocean, which was supposed to monitor that process, failed to catch the problem.
“I think, practically speaking, [the companies] were making decisions that they thought were efficient,” he said. “Most of these decisions did save time, and it has been noted that time also is money.”
Looking toward the future, the commission recommended an overhaul of the structure of the Minerals Management Service, an arm of the Interior Department that regulates the harvesting of oil, minerals and natural gas, Reilly said. The report also suggested the separation of the regulatory bodies from revenue collection to prevent conflicts of interest, as the MMS is the government’s second largest source of revenue after the IRS.
The report also suggested the formation of a safety institute for the oil drilling industry, a common practice in other high risk sectors such as the nuclear power industry. The proposed institute would be set up by the oil and gas industry and filled with top-quality experts who are familiar with the latest oil drilling technology. The institute would ideally serve as a self-policing mechanism to supplement more effective government regulations.
“This is a fundamentally hopeful report,” he said. “We believe that oil and gas can be developed in deepwater—that is where the hydrocarbons are.”
At the conclusion of his speech, Reilly responded to questions from the sizable audience. He criticized the lack of technological advancement in oil spill clean-up technology in the 20 years since the Exxon Valdez spill and said this was an indication of complacency within the industry. Reilly also explained the difficulties in deciding on further domestic oil drilling, noting that although it opens up environmental risks at home, domestic drilling would be held to a higher standard than drilling in other parts of the world. The alternative would be obtaining more oil from Nigeria, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, which comes with considerable environmental damage. Finally, he voiced his hope that the commission’s findings could be applied to future deepwater drilling projects in Mexico and Cuba.
Reilly’s presentation was generally well-received by members of the audience, including Brodhead.
“He just understands the problem from every perspective,” Brodhead said in an interview.
Tina Praprotnik, a graduate student at the School of Law and the Nicholas School of the Environment, said she was especially interested in how the speech highlighted the many stakeholders present in the national response to the oil spill. Praprotnik also plans to pursue environmental law.
“It seems to be a very balanced report, trying to take into account the scientific reality but also the political factors and the industry factors,” she said. “I thought it was very interesting the way he balanced or addressed all those considerations.”
Vee Subramanian, an affiliate at the Nicholas Institute who is studying product sustainability, said Reilly’s presentation prompted him to consider changes the oil industry must make.
“One thing we realized from this is there needs to be more advancements,” he said. “All the profits made by Exxon and all these oil companies need to be invested more in protecting the business, protecting the environment. If they want to last forever they need to get rid of issues like this.”