Bruce Alpert, Times-Picayune


The co-chairman of the White House commission investigating the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico says he's "amenable" to trying to speed up consideration of safety procedures that could allow deepwater drilling to resume in the Gulf of Mexico ahead of the current six-month moratorium.

Louisiana's elected officials and representatives of the offshore drilling industry have said the ban on new exploratory drilling could cost the region thousands of jobs as rigs are moved to other parts of the world and workers are laid off or forced to leave the area. And without a firm restart schedule, critics of the moratorium say, domestic oil production could be disrupted for years.

Bob Graham, a Democrat, and William Reilly, a Republican, will lead the seven-member commission to investigate the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

William Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator whom Obama chose to co-chair the oil spill commission with former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, said in an interview Tuesday that the seven-member panel is likely to issue interim recommendations as it reaches conclusions on the massive spill. That could lead to earlier recommendation on safeguarding deepwater drilling, he said.

Reilly said he's aware of the financial concerns expressed by Louisiana officials regarding the moratorium.

"We'd like to accelerate consideration of some of the issues that we are going to deal with, and I would be amenable to give them (the deepwater safety issues) priority," Reilly said.

But he cautioned that the panel is still awaiting appointment of five additional members and obviously hasn't set up a work schedule. He said he expects the remaining members to be named this week.

President Barack Obama, who ordered the six-month hold on new drilling, has said he would be open to ending the ban sooner if recommendations on how to avoid a repeat of the BP disaster can be finalized and implemented more quickly.

In response to questions about jobs lost in the industry, an administration official said Monday that the president expects BP to cover the wages of employees at the 30 Gulf Coast rigs expected to be impacted by the moratorium.

BP officials have not responded to questions about the president's position, but legal experts say it is questionable whether the administration can force BP to cover the lost wages of oil rig workers put out of work by the moratorium.

"My view is that isn't what Congress had in mind when it passed the Oil Pollution Act," said Tom Galligan, president of Colby-Sawyer College and an expert on maritime law.

Vincent Foley, an expert on the Oil Pollution Recovery Act, which was passed in 1990 after the Exxon Valdez accident to hold companies responsible for damage caused by spills, agreed.

"I don't think this is the type of claim covered by the Oil Pollution Act,' said Foley, a lawyer with Holland and Knight in New York City.

Foley and Galligan said that Congress can try to add new requirements retroactively for reimbursement of workers whose jobs are eliminated by what some are calling a "safety time out" in deepwater drilling. But there are questions about Congress' authority to impose rules retroactively.

The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association estimates the 30 Gulf Coast rigs affected by the moratorium employ between 800 and 1,400 workers each. With average wages of $1,800 a week, or more than $93,000 a year, the cost could be $185 million to $325 million a month.

And the economic losses ripple far beyond the rigs.

Hornbeck Offshore Services, based in Covington, which operates a fleet of vessels that service the offshore drilling industry, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana this week against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Bob Abbey, acting director of the Minerals Management Service, seeking to block the moratorium.

"We think that the Department of Interior acted outside of its legal authority in issuing an industry-wide shutdown of this kind and we think the appropriate person to look at this is a federal judge," said Hornbeck's general counsel, Samuel Giberga.

But Salazar's spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, said, "The moratorium on deepwater drilling is based on the need for a comprehensive review of safety in deepwater operations in light of the BP oil spill. Oil and gas production in the OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) is an important part of our energy portfolio, however the pause button that we have pushed will give us time to ensure that any oil and gas drilling in deepwater can be done safely and to allow time for the commission to perform its work and to develop recommendations."

But Hornbeck and others in the industry say they fear that by the time the administration is ready to press the "resume" button, it will be too late and the industry in the Gulf will already be irreparably damaged.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony Tuesday about legislation to make families of the 11 victims of the BP rig accident eligible to recover damages from life experiences, compensation that victims of accidents on land, or passengers of airplanes that crash into the ocean can currently receive.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the committee, is offering legislation to end the inequity, which he said "adds further insult to the 11 families who are victims of this tragedy."

Haraz N. Ghanbari/The Associated PressChristopher Jones' brother Gordon, 28, died in the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion.

The issue was emotionally presented to the committee by Christopher Jones, a Baton Rouge lawyer, whose brother, Gordon Jones, 28, was killed in the April 20 BP explosion.

Displaying pictures of his brother, his brother's wife, Michelle, and the couple's two sons, Christopher Jones said that under current law BP could "calculate what his earnings would be, subtract out the income taxes he would have paid and subtract out what he would have consumed himself."

But the law does not allow the family to recover for "the comfort and care that Gordon would have provided his sons and the support he would have provided to his wife over the years."

Jones surprised some committee members when he said the family hadn't heard yet from BP officials, and some senators shook their heads affirmatively as he made reference to BP CEO Tony Hayward's comment last week that he would "like his life back."

"Well, Mr. Hayward, I want my brother's life back," he said, holding back tears.

Hayward has since apologized for the comment.

In a floor speech Tuesday, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., asked the Justice Department to create a Gulf Coast Recovery Fund that would be financed, to begin with, by $10 billion from BP and jointly administered by BP and a special master named by the government.

Dorgan said that while BP has pledged to make good on every "legitimate claim," that commitment provides no legal guarantee that they will make good on it. "On this, the 50th day of the spill, what I believe should happen is the Justice Department should go to BP and say, 'let us formalize an agreement,'" Dorgan said.

David Uhlmann, director of the University of Michigan Environmental Law and Policy Program, said "the creation of a Gulf Coast Recovery Fund seems premature."

"The government should ask a court to create such a fund as part of any criminal resolution in the BP case, but the court and a special master should administer, not BP," Uhlmann said.