Presidential oil spill panel must have subpoena power


If you believe that the perpetra- tors of the worst environmental crisis in U.S. history will willingly appear before a presidential commission and tell the truth, then you also believe that the millions of gallons of oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico have simply evaporated.

The principals of the companies involved in the deepwater drilling rig that exploded on April 20 killing 11 and spewing oil for 91 days aren’t eager to be in the public spotlight. And, the oil hasn’t been cleaned up by Mother Nature, as some deniers of the disaster keep insisting.

The only way the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling appointed by President Barack Obama can conduct a full investigation is with subpoena power.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation giving the panel such authority, but the Senate has failed to act. The measure is attached to a larger energy bill that Republicans are blocking.

“It really strikes me as unjustifiable for Congress not to give full authority to us to use all of the instruments of the investigative process to resolve this,” said William Reilly, a cochairman of the commission, in a story by Dow Jones Newswires.

The other cochairman, Bob Graham, urged Congress to act before it adjourns this week. Legislators will not return to Washington until after the Nov. 2 general election. No significant legislation is expected to be tackled during that lame duck session.

Given the economic and environmental destruction caused by the oil spill, the need for a full-blown investigation is clear. There are many important questions that must be answered. Why did the explosion occur? Was it negligence or simply an unavoidable accident? Were the companies involved in the operation and management of the rig, BP, Halliburton Co., and Transocean Ltd., complicit in the myriad problems on and under the Deepwater Horizon rig before the deadly explosion?

A congressional committee released documents that showed BP made a series of money-saving shortcuts and blunders that dramatically increased the danger of a destructive spill from a well that an engineer ominously described as a “nightmare” just six days before the April blowout.

Investigators found that BP was badly behind schedule on the project and losing hundreds of thousands of dollars with each passing day, and responded by cutting corners in the well design, cementing and drilling efforts and the installation of key safety devices.

Warning

Commission Cochairman Graham warned that waiting until after the November election for the subpoena power will cost the investigation valuable time. The commission has a deadline of the second week of January to report its findings.

“Eleven Americans lost their lives as a result of this,” he said. “We owe it to them and the American people who have been affected by this to have the fullest, most confidence-building report that is in our ability to produce. We think that without subpoena power, we will do the best we can, but it will not be as good as the American people deserve.”

And the American people deserve the best from this presidential commission because of what the Gulf oil spill has done to the environment, the economy and the lives of thousands of residents in the Gulf states.

Congress should do the right thing and give the panel the power it needs.

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