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The Power of Subpoena

This week concluded the presidential commission hearings on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  The Oil Spill Commission will meet once more for final deliberation in early December before going behind closed doors to craft its report on the worst oil spill in the history of the United States.  No small task.  But a task made that much more challenging by the fact that the entity has been denied subpoena power.

During the course of the two day hearing held in Washington, D.C., the commission’s chief counsel, Fred Bartlit regularly highlighted the data gaps that subpoena power could have helped fill in.

Chief counsel Bartlit’s plea – “Subpoena, that’s damn important” – pointed in part to the possibility that the spill commission may never resolve a fundamental question: How a band of experienced roughnecks on a muddy drill floor missed critical warning signs and failed to control a rush of oil and gas that hit the rig with the force of a 550-ton freight train. But instead of testimony under oath to resolve fundamental questions, the commission has had to rely on the “full cooperation”  of the corporations involved in the rig explosion – BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

Why have these companies been munching on their carrots of cooperation, while ultimately avoiding the stick of “swearing the truth and nothing but the truth”?  Their republican beneficiaries  in the Senate have deemed subpoena power as just another vehicle for shakin’ down the oil industry.

Meanwhile the corporations involved in the sequence of events that let to the April 20th explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig have been working with the Commission and its counsel to deconstruct the event, unfortunately much of their role has been pointing the finger at the other guys.

The disputes between Transocean and BP and Halliburton as to who said what when, and who has the responsibility for that, this is where subpoena power would be helpful,” said Bartlit. “It’s hard to resolve that unless I can sit people down in a room and cross-examine them and find out what’s believable and not believable.”

Bartlit went so far as to ask the represents from the three companies whether or not they would be willing to press the Senate on granting the commission subpoena power – they weren’t empowered to respond at that time.

In the final analysis, the American public needs to know that all the facts were represented – not just to have faith in the set of recommendations prescribed by the Commission, but to avoid further demoralization of a populace already scathed by political posturing that puts party before progress.

Allison Fisher is the Outreach Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program