Expand the Presidential Commission on Deepwater Horizon

Space Shuttle Challenger and Deepwater Horizon

Amid the other news this week, including the President”s address to the nation on the Gulf Coast oil disaster and his meeting with BP officials yesterday, the announcement on Monday of the five remaining members of the Presidential Commission to assess the “environmental and safety precautions…to ensure an accident like this never happens again” seems to have sunk without a trace. I don”t recall seeing it mentioned in either the Washington Post or Wall St. Journal. I ran across it in the New Orleans Times-Picayune online last night. Yet it”s clear that the staffing of such a commission has an enormous influence on its approach and ultimate findings, and on both counts I am seriously concerned. From my review of their published bios, I cannot discern that any named member possesses any direct training or experience with the technology and practices of offshore drilling, a field that in its own way is every bit as complex as aviation, terrorism, or other past subjects of similar commissions.

The gold standard for Presidential commissions investigating accidents of national importance was set by the Rogers Commission on the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger shortly after its launch on January 28, 1986. The commission–not just its technical staff–was packed to the rafters with figures of national prominence and deep expertise in aviation and space technology and operations. Headed by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers, it included Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut on the moon, Dr. Sally Ride, first American woman in space, Gen. Chuck Yeager, first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound, Gen. Donald Kutyna, an expert on spacecraft launches and accidents, and Joseph Sutter, the “father” of the Boeing 747, along with an aeronautical engineering professor, an aircraft designer, a solar physicist, and several other leading experts on aerospace matters. Last but never least was Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, quintessential iconoclast, and perhaps the smartest and most inquisitive human being ever to walk the earth, with the possible exception of Albert Einstein. It was, of course, Dr. Feynman whose famous ice-water experiment with the solid rocket boosters” O-ring material uncovered the root cause of the disaster.

Each of the fine individuals President Obama has named to the Deepwater Horizon Commission brings valuable experience and an important perspective, including that of a professional environmentalist, biological oceanographer, an accomplished physicist and manager of science, and a pair of lawyers with past experience in various aspects of the Exxon Valdez spill and cleanup. I have no objection to any of them individually. However, collectively they are not a patch on the Rogers Commission.

The obvious solution to this problem is that the President should immediately expand the commission to include at least two additional members, and preferably four, with deep expertise and experience in oil & gas drilling, geoscience, and offshore industry operations. It is absolutely essential that the commission includes people who understand not just the ocean environment, but also subsea geology, drilling technology, and relevant oil & gas industry practices, first-hand. They should of course have no connections to BP or to any other company that stands to lose or gain from the commission”s findings. While that might narrow the field somewhat, it would not rule out the faculties of the leading petroleum engineering and geosciences university departments, or a wide swath of recently-retired experts in these fields. The US is blessed with abundant expertise in this area, and it would be a crime to exclude it from this vital study.

Despite a nearly universal desire to accelerate our shift away from petroleum in the wake of this disaster, we are nowhere near being able to turn our backs on either the energy or convenience we get from oil. As I”ve shown in a series of postings since the accident occurred, offshore drilling is a crucial component of US domestic energy supplies, and no current alternative energy source operates at either the scale necessary to replace it, or in sufficiently direct substitution for the transportation energy of which oil is our principal provider. The less oil we produce domestically, the more we will have to import.

In this context it is of the highest importance that the commission be given the best chance possible to interpret the findings of the technical investigations of what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon rig, and to determine how to structure an approach to offshore drilling that reduces the risks posed by human error and technical failures to the maximum degree possible. Every member of the commission has important contributions to make in this regard, but without the match between relevant experience and the nature of the problem exemplified by the Rogers Commission, the Deepwater Horizon Commission will be operating at least partly in the dark.

I don”t often urge my readers to take action on the subject of one of my blogs, but in this case, if you share my concerns about the omission of critical experience from the staffing of this commission, you should contact the White House and your Representatives in Congress to express that view.

© 2013 Energy Tribune

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