As the fallout from the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues, the Obama administration is making policy and organizational changes, and lawmakers in Congress are trying to move legislation to address the spill and prevent future accidents from occurring. But some question how effective the administrative actions will be, and legislative proposals have been stalled by congressional opponents.

The administration’s actions so far include ordering inspections on all deepwater operations in the Gulf of Mexico, placing a moratorium on new permits for drilling wells until a 30-day safety and environmental review is conducted and restructuring the Interior Dept.’s Minerals Management Service (MMS). Environmental groups say they are supportive of the administration’s efforts so far to respond to the spill, but that some of the moves could have less of an impact than their advocates may think.

Critics, including President Obama, fault the “cozy” relationship MMS has had with industry. It has been widely reported the MMS did not require BP to develop an extensive cleanup plan because the company had assured officials that an accident of the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill was unlikely.

Without a plan, BP and the U.S. Coast Guard now are learning as they go, identifying how to stem and clean up the spill, says Davis Pettit, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order on May 19 to divide MMS into three separate entities with independent missions: enforcement, energy development and revenue collection. But NRDC’s Pettit says he expects to see little change. “There’s an inherent conflict of interest with an agency that’s both trying to maximize revenue … and at the same time doing things that industry says will impede its ability to pump more oil,” he says.

But Mike Olsen, a former Interior Dept. official, says, “It remains to be seen what the impact [of the MMS reorganization] will be.” He says a lot will depend on who is brought in to lead the new divisions. Olsen, now an attorney with the Washington, D.C., office of Bracewell and Giuliani, a law firm representing energy companies and utilities, says he finds the timing of Salazar’s MMS announcement “a bit strange” and wonders why the Interior secretary did not wait for the results of various investigations before deciding to make such a large structural change.


Meanwhile, a May 25 report from the Interior’s inspector general found examples of “ethical lapses” in certain offices of MMS staff between 2000 and 2008. Salazar says the report highlights the need for reform at the agency. He has asked the IG to investigate whether MMS personnel failed to adequately enforce standards or inspect the Deepwater Horizon offshore facility.

A new, higher-profile probe is about to begin. Obama has announced that an independent commission will investigate the spill’s causes, the safety of offshore drilling and MMS operations. The president on May 22 named the panel’s co-chairmen: William K. Reilly, a Republican and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator who oversaw EPA’s response to the Exxon Valdez disaster, and Democrat Bob Graham, former U.S. Senator from Florida and, before that, the Sunshine State’s governor.

Congress continues to hold hearings on the spill, and lawmakers have introduced legislation that would raise the cap on liability for oil spills to $10 billion, from $75 million now. Some Senate Democrats, including Bill Nelson (Fla.), want to remove the liability limit entirely.

The Senate at press time had begun to debate an emergency spending bill, which includes an Obama administration proposal for $118 million to aid the Gulf area. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) says she plans to introduce several amendments to strengthen support for Gulf businesses and coastline restoration efforts.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is among lawmakers who have introduced—or plan to propose—legislation responding to the spill.