OUTLOOK ’11: US chem safety board awaits budget from new Congress

03 January 2011 17:00  [Source: ICIS news]

By Ben DuBose

Congress is expected to give the CSB a fiscal 2011 budget figure by MarchHOUSTON (ICIS)--In an ideal world, the year 2011 for the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) would include a successful investigation into the BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, the opening of a Houston office and additional funding for new cases.

But as with so many items tied into the US political arena, the viability of that agenda depends largely on the new 112th Congress that convenes in January.

“As we all know, there were some political changes in the country in November,” said CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, who took the helm of the agency in June. “The situation changed.

“We are not discouraged or thinking that it will have to be necessarily bad,” he added. “You just have to give it some time to see how requests for new resources will be handled.”

In the lame-duck session of Congress that convened in December, the CSB’s general operating authorisation for the fiscal 2011 budget was $13.15m (€10.13m), about 18% higher than $11.15m in 2010, said CSB managing director Daniel Horowitz.

That would almost match the 20.5% budget hike sought by the CSB.

But Congress has yet to complete the past-due appropriations bills, and is unlikely to finalise the CSB’s budget figure until February or March, said Horowitz.

“It didn’t make it all the way through the process [in December] for reasons not related to the CSB,” he added.

The new Congress will be more heavily tilted toward Republicans, including a number of budget hawks. Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in the November 2010 elections and significantly shrunk their deficit in the Senate.

Even so, the board’s executives are cautiously optimistic that the higher budget figure will ultimately secure approval.

“We remain hopeful,” said Horowitz. “We know there’s broad support for the work that we do.”

In 2011, much of that work will surround a potentially two-year investigation recently opened into the BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

CSB investigators are examining the chemical explosion of natural gas produced at the rig, and plan to hold hearings (the first of which came in December 2010) every few months to discuss their findings.

In total, the investigation could take up to two years, Moure-Eraso said, adding that it could set a precedent based on the high-profile nature of the case.

“This is the basic strategic industry of the United States,” said Moure-Eraso. “Domestic oil, a big percentage of that comes from offshore. It’s crucial that we find the root causes of why this explosion happened.”

The explosion subsequently led to the largest oil spill in US Gulf history.

John Bresland, former chairman of the chemical safety board, had said that the agency would have to dip into its $847,000 emergency fund to launch the BP inquiry.

But the agency said it had shifted some personnel and had been able to undertake the investigation without shutting other cases.

“We have been able so far to maintain our obligations as we normally do,” Moure-Eraso said.

Thus far, much of the BP investigation work has been conducted by the board’s recently-established, six-person branch office in Denver, Colorado.

Given that much of the nation’s energy infrastructure is along the US Gulf coast, the board has repeatedly stated a desire to open another office in Houston, potentially as soon as 2011.

“It works into the logic of it,” said Moure-Eraso. “But it’s very dependent on the resources we have available.”

As such, with the BP investigation having only opened in late 2010 and a number of other cases - including a probe into Bayer’s storage of methyl isocyanate (MIC) in West Virginia – yet to close, the viability of a new Houston office will depend on the final budget figures.

“I think it’s very unwise to predict much at this time,” Moure-Eraso said.

The Washington, DC-based Chemical Safety Board is charged with investigating accidents at US chemical plants.

It does not issue citations or fines, instead making recommendations based on its investigations.

($1 = €0.75)

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By: Ben DuBose
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