Oil Spill Amnesia Bills Would Prevent Protection of our Ocean Environment

Considering the recent barrage of provisions attempting to close the courthouse door to those challenging illegal governmental actions, it’s no surprise that H.R. 1229—one of Rep. Hastings’ (R-WA) Oil Spill Amnesia Bills—also includes such a measure.  Indeed, Section 207 would repeal the Equal Access to Justice Act by preventing parties, including fishermen, small business owners, and environmental groups, from recovering legal fees when they bring successful suits to ensure offshore oil and gas activities comply with important statutes like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The aim of this provision is, apparently, to encourage federal regulators to inappropriately approve offshore oil and gas activities that fail to meet the requirements of federal law. 

The federal government has failed miserably at enforcing environmental laws when it comes to drilling activities on the outer continental shelf (OCS).  In terms of NEPA, the government has performed cursory environmental assessments, failed to integrate NEPA analyses with related federal statutes, and even exempted entire projects from NEPA review, including the Macondo well.  Similarly, the federal government has violated the ESA and the MMPA by permitting oil and gas activities (e.g., seismic testing) that harm endangered species and marine mammals without going through even the most basic compliance in the vast majority of situations.

Given the government’s failure to adhere to environmental laws in our oceans, litigation serves a critical function in enforcing these statutes.  Hindering the capacity of individuals and groups to ensure that the environmental impacts of drilling operations are considered will contribute to the decline of our oceans.  Further, by reducing opportunities for parties to challenge oil and gas activities, this provision would diminish incentives for drilling to be conducted in ways that take the health of the ocean ecosystem into account. 

The BP Gulf oil disaster provided us with even more evidence on how harmful oil and gas extraction can be to the marine environment.  Yet, instead of attempting to incorporate these lessons into his legislation, Rep. Hastings’ bills would make things worse for coastal economies, marine life, and the ocean ecosystem.  The only thing these bills would actually help is the oil industry—and they’re doing just fine as it is.