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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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.

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.

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.

On Monday, Mr. Bartlit, who helped litigate the 2000 election recount for President Bush, took a view opposite that of many Democratic lawmakers on whether corporate corner-cutting and profit-padding lay behind the accident. "We don't see a person or three people sitting there at a table considering the safety and cost and giving up safety for cost, we have not seen that," Bartlit said.

In intricate detail, the oil spill commission has laid out a tragedy born of poor corporate decisions, irrational hubris, and failures of experience and even common sense on the Deepwater Horizon rig, leading to the worst industrial offshore oil spill in American history.

A lot of systems and protocols failed, but one prime mistake led to the explosion, said counsel Sean Grimsley: the downplaying of a failed negative pressure test that had hinted at problems. It's that blow-by-blow account of how the rig floor crew began a scheduled "temporary abandonment" procedure, despite evidence that the well was still live, that is missing from the record.

"None of these men wanted to die or jeopardize the safety of people they work with every day," Mr. Grimsley said. "So why did these experienced men come to this conclusion? We may never know the answer to that question."

Of the men who know the truth, Grimsley said, some died in the explosion, others are too seriously injured to participate, and others have invoked their Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure – a hurdle only a subpoena can overcome.

"The disputes between Transocean and BP and Halliburton as to who said what when, and who has the responsibility for that, this is where subpoena power would be helpful," said Bartlit. "It's hard to resolve that unless I can sit people down in a room and cross-examine them and find out what's believable and not believable."

But Americans may ultimately get closer to the truth, despite the commission's lack of subpoena power. Criminal investigations are ongoing by the Department of Justice, which has broad subpoena powers. By resisting the subpoena power for the commission, Republicans may be seeking through politics a kind of prosecutorial balance.

"I don't think the Republicans are going to want to ignore culpability for the energy companies, but rather to focus the spotlight on the Obama administration," says Mr. Cain. "And the way to do this is to resist subpoena power for the commission and to concentrate on using the House's oversight authority once the new Congress begins in January."

But given criticism of the Obama White House for making deals with BP and allowing BP agents in the Gulf free rein in the spill's aftermath, many Democrats may be worried about where blame would ultimately fall if the commission were to have subpeona power.

"It's possible that the commissioners are trying to objectively do what's right, and they're being stymied by people who don't want them to do what's correct," says Vincenzo Sainato, a criminal justice professor and government accountability expert, also at Loyola. "Maybe [lack of subpoena power] isn't about protecting the BPs and Halliburtons. Maybe it's about protecting [ineffectual government]."

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