May 18, 2010 / 12:44 AM / 7 years ago

Obama to create panel to probe oil spill

HOUSTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will create a commission to investigate the cause of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, evaluate industry practices and study government oversight, an administration official said on Monday.

The presidential panel, which Obama will establish with an executive order, will be similar to previous commissions that looked into the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, the official said.

Current government employees and elected officials will not be eligible to serve on the commission.

The group will investigate a range of issues related to the spill and its aftermath, including rig safety and regulatory regimes on the local, state and federal levels, said the official, who requested anonymity.

“The commission will take into account the investigations under way concerning the causes of the spill,” he said.

The Gulf spill began after an April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers. It threatens to eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska as the worst U.S. ecological disaster.

The new commission will help Obama prove he is showing leadership on an issue that has dominated public attention and raised questions about oil companies’ safety practices and loose government oversight.

It comes as the president is trying to advance legislation to overhaul U.S. energy policy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A formal announcement about the panel is expected in the coming days.

FOCUS ON MMS

The federal government’s oversight role, environmental protections, and the “structure and functions” of the Minerals Management Service -- the U.S. Interior Department agency that has come under fire for its regulatory practices -- will all be on the commission’s agenda, the official said.

The MMS is responsible for regulating offshore oil drilling. Obama said last week that the agency was too “cozy” with oil companies. The Interior Department plans to split MMS to separate its safety inspection functions from its oil royalty duties.

“For too long, for a decade or more, there has been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill,” Obama said last week.

“It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies. That cannot and will not happen anymore,” he said.

The official who oversees offshore oil drilling in the MMS, Chris Oynes, will resign on May 31, the official said, in what appears to be the first casualty at the federal government level since the accident.

Some lawmakers and other industry watchers had called previously for Obama to create an independent commission to investigate the accident.

“Whether it’s a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island or an oil blowout one mile deep, appointing an independent review panel is critical to reduce the risks of future accidents,” said Representative Edward Markey, who chairs a committee on global warming and energy independence in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Editing by Sandra Maler

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