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Oil spill panel: a push for subpoena power in Deepwater Horizon probe

Senate Republicans have blocked subpoena power for President Obama's oil spill commission. The commission's chief counsel will push for it again, arguing it's needed to learn the truth about the Deepwater Horizon rig.

By Staff writer / November 9, 2010

Fred Bartlit Jr., chief investigator of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, talks about the blowout preventer as he goes through a detailed presentation of the operation of an offshore oil rig, as the panel holds a public hearing in Washington, on Nov. 8.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Fred Bartlit, chief counsel for President Obama's national oil spill commission, put pressure on congressional Republicans on Monday to allow the commission subpoena power in order to be able to tell Americans the full story of what happened to BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

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Chief counsel Bartlit's plea – "Subpoena, that's damn important" – pointed in part to the possibility that the spill commission may never resolve a fundamental question: How a band of experienced roughnecks on a muddy drill floor missed critical warning signs and failed to control a rush of oil and gas that hit the rig with the force of a 550-ton freight train.

But the subpoena issue, especially with Republicans vowing more government oversight from the newly captured House, may also be part of a political power play about where inquiry and blame should be focused: on private industry, or on the US government, as embodied by President Obama?

"To the sense that anyone is asking for subpoena power, that would mean there's potential that evidence weighs more heavily against some of the players than others," says Sean Cain, an assistant political science professor at Loyola University, in New Orleans. Republicans "say they want to use oversight authority to challenge the Obama administration, so perhaps opposition to subpoena power is intended as a way to allow the House more scrutiny on the president's and the federal bureaucracy's role rather than private companies with a history of support for Republicans."

Appointed by Mr. Obama this summer, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling is charged with investigating what happened to the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20, killing 11 and spewing 4.8 million barrels (202 million gallons) of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a three-month span.

The commission's cochairman, former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, said Monday that "there will be an effort made in the [congressional] lame-duck session ... to secure subpoena power." The House already voted to give the commission that power, but Republicans in the Senate, in a move engineered by minority leader Mitch McConnell, have blocked subpoena power on fears that the that the Democratic-leaning commission would be unfair to oil-and-gas interests.

The oil spill commission's first report blasted the Obama administration's sluggish handling of the early days of the crisis. Since then, among many conclusions, it has cited Halliburton, the oil field service company, for pouring bad cement; BP for taking shortcuts in its design of the well; Transocean for how it failed to specify possible remedies as the disaster unfolded; and government drilling overseers for failing to regulate the kind of well-integrity test that played a role in the rig's demise. The commission's final report is due Jan. 11.

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