This month marked the official end of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. After months of investigation, we delivered our recommendations in January on how to prevent another oil spill tragedy in the future, and now we are closing up shop.
Ten months after the commission started and nearly one year after the blowout occurred, Americans have the right to ask: are we any safer?
Have our leaders taken the steps necessary to protect America’s marine riches and coastal communities from devastating oil spills?
At the broadest level, the answer is: no. Our nation is just as dependent on oil as we were a year ago, and the turmoil in the Middle East has led to even more calls for domestic drilling. Oil companies will reap multimillion-dollar rewards for drilling in ever riskier conditions, including five miles below the ocean surface.
This relentless drive for oil will continue, so we must put smart safeguards in place and move to more efficient transportation alternatives at the same time. Has our nation done that? Have decision makers embraced the commission’s recommendations?
The answer is: to a degree, but much remains to be done.
It’s important to remember that the resources of the Gulf—the marine life and the oil and gas reserves found there—are held in trust for the American people. To fully represent the public interests, the commission concluded that America needs stronger oversight and enforcement of offshore operations and that the industry, the administration, and Congress must all play a role in achieving that.
The Department of Interior has begun this process. It has adopted new regulations that strengthen worker and environmental safety on rigs, and it has abolished the rogue Minerals Management Service and restructured its offshore divisions in the newly created Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue.
Much more needs to be done. The commission called for an independent safety agency within the Department of Interior that would be responsible for all operational and occupational aspects of offshore drilling and invested with strong enforcement and oversight authority. Interior has not yet taken this important step. The agency should also do more to ensure its scientists have the independence they need to do their jobs. Nonetheless, the agency is moving in the right direction.
The oil industry has started to adopt one of the commission’s key recommendations: creating an independent safety institute similar to the one the nuclear sector opened after Three Mile Island. On March 17, the American Petroleum Institute board of directors endorsed the launch of a Center for Offshore Safety. The commission argued strongly that the safety program should be outside of API, but the vote is a step forward.
Still, the industry has a long way to go. Serving on the commission, I was reminded once again of how much influence oil companies wield. We as a nation are addicted to their product and to the revenues they generate for the federal treasury. They also possess bottomless financial resources: In 2009, the industry spent $168 million lobbying Congress and the administration.
The industry is a powerful force in political life, and only strong safeguards and empowered government agencies can ensure it does not steamroll public interest.
That is why Congress must take action. Only Congress has the authority to raise the liability cap for spills, direct the Clean Water Act fines from the spill to Gulf restoration, and adequately fund the regulatory agency.
Yet the current Congress has failed do any of this. It has not passed a single piece of legislation related to the spill. In the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, both the House and the Senate unanimously supported the Oil Pollution Act. But today, lawmakers can’t find any common ground, and offshore drilling safety has become yet another casualty of unyielding partisanship.
This paralysis must end. The federal government has started to do its part; even the oil industry is inching toward progress. Now Congress must rise to this historic moment.
We cannot let the biggest peacetime oil spill in history occur without bolstering our ability to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.