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On National Oil Spill Commission, We Concluded Systemic Problems Led to Gulf Blowout

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For the past six months, I have served on the National Oil Spill Commission. President Obama called on the commission to investigate the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and today we released our final report and a series of strong recommendations to ensure that no accident like this occurs again.

After an exhaustive review of the evidence, we determined that if America wants to protect rig workers, coastal communities, and our ocean riches from another catastrophic spill, we must conduct a major overhaul of how offshore oil and gas resources are managed.

Quick fixes in one company or one agency will not be sufficient. In our report, we concluded:

“The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again. Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.”

Eleven men died on the Deepwater Horizon, a terrible fact that never left our minds as we did our investigation. To honor their loss and to honor all those Gulf residents who have suffered in the wake of this spill, we must make the necessary changes to prevent another tragic disaster. 

We must begin by putting safety and reliability first. The commission recommends that the Interior Department strengthen its offshore drilling regulations and augment them with updated risk management practices. We also urge the department to create a new safety authority that is separate from its leasing office that would provide essential oversight and enforcement of the offshore operators.

These changes are necessary for two reasons. First, our investigation found that government regulations have not kept pace with the rapid changes in deepwater drilling technology. And second, past efforts to tighten safety requirements or expand federal oversight were either “overtly resisted or not supported by industry, members of Congress, and several administrations.”

 The problem was systemic, and it has to change. The Department of Interior must be given greater regulatory weight, better technical expertise, and more manpower to guarantee that America’s public resources are properly managed.

The Gulf belongs to all Americans. The fish in its waters and the fossil fuel below the sea floor are part of our natural heritage, shared by all of us. Our government must only permit companies to drill in these waters if it can ensure that those companies will operate as safely as possible and follow the regulations needed to protect our workers, our ocean, and our coastal communities.

The Department of Interior can draft and enforce those safeguards—if Congress and the administration grant it the necessary authority and resources. This should require no undue financial burden. Indeed, as we saw this past summer, the cost of an oil spill far exceeds the cost of providing the oversight needed to prevent such spills. Moreover, offshore and oil and gas leasing provides the single largest source of government income after tax dollars. We propose that the industry pay for the costs of regulation just as the communications and nuclear industries do.

The commission recommends several additional ways to protect the American people’s offshore environment, including strengthening the underlying science of the offshore leasing program, strengthening  the requirements for environmental review before leases are sold, increasing the role of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—our lead ocean agency—in the science and environmental review, and launching a sustained restoration effort for the Gulf that will help the coastal and the marine environment recover.

We also strongly suggest that the Department of the Interior require industry to develop a comprehensive safety approach to offshore operations, such as currently exists in the North Sea operations overseen by the United Kingdom and Norway.

Unlike the aviation or nuclear power sectors, the offshore oil and gas industry does not have uniform operating protocols or self-policing mechanisms to ensure that all operations are held to the highest standard. Our investigation revealed that major decisions at the Macondo well were made in a hasty, ad hoc fashion, with little consideration of the disastrous results that could and did ensue. The industry must be held to stricter guidelines, and they need to adopt an approach that will bring all operators up to the highest standard.

Even with these precautions in place, spills could occur again and we need to be better prepared to respond. The commission suggests more stringent response guidelines, such as requiring companies to demonstrate their capacity to contain spills and establishing worst-case spill protocols. We also recommend lifting the liability limits so that neither taxpayers nor the affected communities are burdened with the costs of clean up. 

These and all the recommendations in the commission’s report can help prevent or prepare for another deepwater disaster. But only if we turn these recommendations into concrete change.

And we must do it soon, because the painful impacts of this spill persist. Nine months have passed since the blowout, and the rest of the nation has returned to business as usual, but I can assure you that many in the Gulf have not.

I have traveled throughout the Gulf Coast, and people routinely tell me that their communities have not recovered economically or psychologically. They are struggling to get their lives back to where they were on April 19—before the oil spill took their livelihoods, clean beaches, productive shrimp and oyster fisheries, and family traditions away from them.

The Gulf of Mexico is not a national sacrifice zone. It is a unique natural resource that provides Americans with food, energy, and jobs that are essential to the prosperity and security of the nation. We need, all of us, a healthy Gulf. The nation depends on it.

And now the government, the industry and the Congress must act to make the necessary changes to safeguard and the Gulf and its people from future oil spill disasters.

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