+ The federal oil spill commission released its preliminary findings on the causes of the blowout of the Macondo oil well during a round of hearings set to continue tomorrow. Details after the jump.

+ The Obama Administration announced that oil companies will have to sign a statement affirming compliance with new safety regulations before commencing deepwater drilling projects.

+ Dead coral found near the site of the Deepwater Horizon took some scientists by surprise, and raised questions about whether undersea oil plumes were to blame.

+ A new study has shed additional light on where the oil went. Much of it was eaten by bacteria, which were in turn consumed by plankton.

+ Meanwhile, the federal government is beginning studies to measure the human toll, in terms of both economic and emotional well-being, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced plans to make the gulf more ecologically resilient at a Pensacola meeting of the Gulf Coast Restoration Task Force.

Today’s oil spill commission hearings
+ FuelFix outlines 13 factors that contributed to the blowout.

+ One staff member said he was perplexed as to why workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon misread a failed pressure test shortly before the blowout.

“None of the men on this rig want to die,” Grimsely said, adding later, “The question is why did they come to this conclusion.”

Grimsley also said that the federal government had not set up specific procedures for conducting and interpreting such pressure tests. “Nobody in the government set up procedures for conducting or interpreting negative pressure tests,” he said. “Indeed, there were no regulations requiring them at all.”

+ One investigator accused reporters of jumping to “overreaching conclusions” about whether a culture of cost-cutting contributed to BP’s failure to prevent the blowout.

The New York Times expands:

Fred H. Bartlit Jr., a prominent trial lawyer hired to lead the panel’s inquiry, disputed the findings of other investigators, including members of Congress, who have charged that BP and its main partners, Transocean and Halliburton, had cut corners to speed completion of the well, which cost $1.5 million a day to drill.

“To date we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety,” Mr. Bartlit said on Monday. The statement came near the beginning of a detailed presentation Mr. Bartlit gave on the causes of the April 20 disaster on a drilling rig off the Louisiana coast, which killed 11 workers and led to the biggest offshore oil spill in American history.

+ The commission also lamented its lack of subpoena power.

Oil spill claims and the future of mass litigation
The New York Times Magazine gave cover treatment on Sunday to the behind-the-scenes wrangling between BP, the federal government and trial lawyers that has surrounded the claims process overseen by Kenneth Feinberg. What will a process designed to minimize lawsuits mean for that last group and the victims they represent?

Does the settlement fund represent a superior alternative to trial-lawyer-financed litigation? For some claimants, undoubtedly it does. Since increasing his efforts in September, Feinberg has proved generous to workers and other small claimants seeking compensation for lost wages. But for others, principally business owners, the fund has so far been a bust. John Nelson, president of Bon Secour Fisheries, a seafood processor and supplier on the Alabama coast, neatly sums up the difference. He says that while his workers have been compensated by the fund for lost wages, his company has received only about 10 percent of its claimed losses. “I think everybody is prepared to pursue litigation, but we’d much rather not have to,” says Nelson, who has retained a lawyer (not Buzbee). Jo Bonner, a Republican congressman whose Alabama district encompasses the state’s Gulf Coast, says Nelson’s experience is a common one among his constituents. “I know a lot of money has been paid out, but many, many, many haven’t been paid, have been denied or gotten only partial payment and no explanation why,” Bonner says.

Feinberg says he is working hard to get people compensation. “I want to discourage claimants from litigating, and it’s the claimant I’m thinking about here,” Feinberg says, arguing that his standards for documenting losses are far more liberal than those that people are likely to encounter in court. “I want to see these people made whole, and quickly, and not after years of litigation,” Feinberg says. But while Feinberg casts himself as a neutral arbiter seeking to get victims just compensation, the fact that he is paid by BP has inevitably led to a perception among many spill victims that he is BP’s guy. Trial lawyers frequently note that Feinberg, despite repeated promises to do so, has been slow to reveal details surrounding his compensation and that the initial criteria he set up for paying claims was in many ways more onerous than required under the Oil Pollution Act. (In October, Bloomberg reported that Feinberg’s firm was being paid $850,000 a month by BP.) “This fund is being publicized as some kind of magnanimous gesture, when in fact BP is only doing what is obligated to do by law,” says Anthony Tarricone, a Boston-based trial lawyer and recent past president of the American Association for Justice. Trial lawyers also argue that there is a social cost to using an administrative fund like Feinberg’s in lieu of litigation. “BP does not want to see a trial, they want to quietly sweep this thing under the rug,” Stuart Smith, a lawyer in Louisiana, says. “But I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure a jury finds out what happened.”

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