Obama to establish commission on oil spill as blame game heats up

BP and federal officials come under fire for not having a stronger plan to prevent and respond to a disaster.

President Obama will establish an independent commission to investigate the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico through an executive order, creating a panel that resembles those that probed the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Current federal officials would be barred from serving on it.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., who has pushed for such a commission, said in a statement it will "ensure that our scrutiny matches the depth and breadth of this human, economic and environmental disaster."

Also on Monday, Chris Oynes, the career executive in charge of offshore oil and gas drilling at the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, told officials he would resign at the end of the month. An Interior official told The Washington Post Oynes was not forced out but resigned of his own accord. Oynes had more than three decades of federal service.

Before news of the commission spread Monday, Senate Environment and Public Works Democrats requested a Justice Department inquiry into whether BP violated civil and criminal law, while federal and BP officials came under bipartisan fire from another Senate panel.

Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer and seven panel Democrats wrote Attorney General Eric Holder seeking an investigation into whether BP "made false and misleading statements to the federal government regarding its ability to respond to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico."

The Democrats point to a Feb. 23, 2009, document BP submitted to MMS stating that an unanticipated blowout resulting in an oil spill "is unlikely to have an impact" based on the industry equipment and technology standards and the company's regional oil spill response plan.

The Democrats contend that "it does not in any way appear that there was 'proven equipment and technology' to respond to the spill, which could have tragic consequences for local economies and the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico." A BP spokesman was unable to comment on the letter.

Company officials have admitted they are literally and figuratively in untested waters in trying to stem the flowing of millions of gallons of oil from a well 5,000 feet deep.

Meanwhile, federal and BP officials came under fire Monday by leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for not requiring BP to have a stronger plan to prevent and clean up a major spill.

"As we watched the company, the government trying desperately to figure out how to close this well to stop this spill in the Gulf, we obviously have to conclude that people weren't prepared to do it, weren't prepared to deal with this type of problem," Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman said at a hearing of his panel.

"No one seems to really know what to do when you have this big of spill ... this deep underwater," Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins told Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Rear Adm. Peter Neffenger, deputy national incident commander at the Coast Guard. "It feels like you're making it up as you go along," she later told BP America CEO Lamar McKay.

Monday's hearing was the first to feature testimony from administration officials since the April 20 explosion of the BP-run Deepwater Horizon oil rig. But nearly all of the criticism was levied at MMS, which was not represented at Monday's hearing, making it an appetizer for when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testifies for the first time Tuesday on the spill before both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works panels.

"It seems to me that the Minerals Management Service did not ask enough of you ... and the companies didn't do enough themselves," Lieberman told McKay.

Lieberman questioned why BP also was only required to submit a regional plan -- not one specific to Deepwater -- to MMS in December 2000 and again in June 2009.

He noted the response plan said it could use booms, skimming vessels and dispersants. "But as far as I can tell, those methods don't effectively deal with the enormous accumulation of oil under water now in the Gulf," Lieberman said.

As a last resort, BP's plan said it could use a blowout preventer, MMS signed off on as late as June, even though the preventers failed, Lieberman said.

Napolitano told Lieberman there was "an assumption" a blowout preventer "would never fail," evidenced by the plans BP cleared with MMS.

BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward Sunday wrote Napolitano and Salazar indicating the company is expecting economic damages from the spill to exceed the $75 million cap under current law. The company will pay above that limit, will not seek reimbursement from the federal government's Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and "intends to pay all legitimate claims."

Napolitano said her understanding is that means BP will pay all "nonfraudulent" claims, and noted that as of Friday, the company reported it had opened nearly 11,000 claims, disbursed over $6.6 million and has not denied a claim.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., wrote Napolitano asking for "a full accounting of all federal expenses incurred responding to this tragedy, so the public can be sure that BP reimburses the government for every penny spent cleaning up BP's mess."

Menendez and Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., are pushing a plan to raise the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund's $75 million economic liability cap to $10 billion.