President Obama has named Fred H. Bartlit Jr. as chief counsel for The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, a seven-member bipartisan panel tasked with uncovering the causes of the April 20 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and developing options for avoiding similar disasters in the future.

Bartlit, widely considered one of the nation’s top litigators, was a lead investigator into the Piper Alpha North Sea Oil Platform disaster of 1988 which killed 167 workers, and made national headlines while representing George W. Bush in the infamous Florida recount debacle in 2000.

“This is an extraordinary appointment,” said Richard Lazarus, the commission’s executive director, quoted in The New York Times. “It underscores the commission’s commitment to a searching, rigorous and fair inquiry into the root causes of the gulf oil spill disaster.”

Bloomberg reports:

The seven-member commission is co-chaired by Democrat Bob Graham, a former U.S. senator and Florida governor, and Republican William Reilly, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The members include Frances Beinecke, president of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council; Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; and Terry D. Garcia, vice president for mission programs at the National Geographic Society.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is confident the panel will uncover the cause of the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig leased by BP, which led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

“They were selected because they were the kinds of elder statesmen that would do a great job in reporting out the cause of what happened here and making recommendations,” Salazar said at yesterday’s House Energy Committee hearing. He said “they are putting in the subject matter expertise that will ultimately be needed” to do their jobs.

President Obama explained the executive order issued to establish the commission in his May 22 radio address:

If the laws on our books are inadequate to prevent such an oil spill, or if we didn’t enforce those laws – I want to know it.  I want to know what worked and what didn’t work in our response to the disaster, and where oversight of the oil and gas industry broke down. We know, for example, that a cozy relationship between oil and gas companies and agencies that regulate them has long been a source of concern.

One of the reasons I ran for President was to put America on the path to energy independence, and I have not wavered from that commitment. To achieve that goal, we must pursue clean energy and energy efficiency, and we’ve taken significant steps to do so. And we must also pursue domestic sources of oil and gas.

Because it represents 30 percent of our oil production, the Gulf of Mexico can play an important part in securing our energy future. But we can only pursue offshore oil drilling if we have assurances that a disaster like the BP oil spill will not happen again. This Commission will, I hope, help provide those assurances so we can continue to seek a secure energy future for the United States of America.

The commission held its first public meetings in New Orleans on July 12 and 13, and will be scheduling a series of additional meetings in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in the coming weeks, with a Jan. 11 deadline set for delivering their report to President Obama.

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