Sheila McNulty Presidential panel unlikely to find cause of Gulf accident

The presidential panel tasked with finding the cause of the oil spill in the Gulf began work Monday with a hearing in New Orleans. Yet most of the commentary from various experts throughout the day was about what was being done to stop the leak, which is still gushing in the Gulf, and the damage it is having to Gulf Coast states. Even Texas is now seeing some oil on its shores.

But the problem with probing an incident that is still unfolding is that everyone is too intent upon the here and now – as well they should be in this case - to have the luxury of time to look back for lessons learned. Indeed, Kent Wells, BP senior vice president, used his testimony before the panel to answer questions about what the UK company was doing to stop the leak. And nobody asked him what he thought caused the accident. He probably could not have answered that, anyway.

Although it has been months since the April 20 explosion, the fallout from that blast is continuing. It will likely take months, if not years, to get to the bottom of the causes of this disaster. And the presidential panel will need to draw on forensics and expertise from real experts such as the Chemical Safety Board, which investigated BP’s Texas City explosion in 2005, and has been asked by Congress to help investigate the cause of the Deepwater Horizon accident..

The problem with presidental panels is that investigating such accidents is not their day job. Generally speaking, they do not know the right questions to ask, where to look for evidence, or have the resources within the industry to get to the bottom of what happened. They also do not usually have the time. That is because such panels are often political - born of a desire to look effectual with big name people on them that carry a powerful punch with the media.

That may not be the case with this panel. Other agencies such as MMS and Coast Guard will also be called upon, but the CSB’s contribution will be pivotal, as it has the most experience and credibility relevant to investigating accidents like this. Meanwhile other inquiries, such as the National Academy of Engineering, will also look into the cause of the spill. The academy has announced some of those who will oversee its probe, which is being carried out at the request of interior secretary Ken Salazar.