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Presidential Oil Spill Commission Hears Calls for Stronger Response Plan

National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling hearing in Washington D.C.
National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling hearing in Washington D.C.

A presidential commission held hearings this week in Washington on the events surrounding the
BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling heard from U.S. Coast Guard officials, Gulf region scientists and a top BP executive.

The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon Oil platform killed 11 workers and led to the worst offshore oil spill in history. The commission wants to know what caused the disaster, and how better to respond to similar catastrophes.

Low estimates

Commission members scoffed at the initial low estimates of how much oil was leaking daily from the well. Scientists eventually put the figure at 62,000 barrels.

"Five-thousand barrels a day was not in the right ballpark," said oceanographer Ian McDonald. He added that remote sensing technology needs major advancements to achieve a better read on how much oil is in the water.

"Even in the height of the spill response, much of the extraction from the satellite data was done manually," McDonald said. "In other words, there were people sitting in a room looking at satellite images and manually tracing around them and that leads to judgment, subjectivity, fatigue and so forth."

McDonald and others say scientific early response teams should be a part of future disaster relief efforts. They now estimate it could take a decade of tracing Gulf species to know the extent of the spill's damage.

Criticism voiced

BP Executive Doug Suttles faced criticism from the committee on a range of issues, including questions on whether the company over-estimated its ability to handle a massive oil spill when it applied for its drilling permit in 2009. Suttles admitted the technology for dealing with drilling disasters is not where it should be.

"It was frustrating," admitted Suttles. "Some of the tools and technologies available to us were the same ones available 20 years ago."

Suttles said governments should help in this effort and suggested the industry has much to learn from countries where spill clean-up technology is more evolved.

"When we needed the very, very best in spill response technology we went to Norway," explained Suttles.

Federal response

The panel heard from Gulf Coast leaders, including Billy Nungesser, the president of a Louisiana parish, or district. Nungesser criticized the federal effort to clean up local marshes. He said spilled oil is still there.

"To this day, Plaquemines Parish, which has more coastline and more oil in the marsh than any other parish or any other area, has yet to receive its first foot of ocean boom," Nungesser said.

The commission also examined the controversial use of chemical dispersants that help to dissipate oil slicks. Scientists say not much is known about the long-term effect of dispersants, but available data suggests their use does more harm than good. The commission is also looking at the economic impact of the spill as well as current Gulf seafood safety.