Accounting for a Manmade Disaster in the Gulf, a Year Later

04/18/2011 06:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2011

A year after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, dozens of dead baby dolphins are washing ashore in the Gulf of Mexico; oyster populations are devastated, crippling a multi-billion dollar industry and the tens of thousands of jobs that go with it; and Gulf residents continue to complain of lingering health problems that they believe were caused by the BP oil spill. Despite what you may read in the mainstream media, the oil has not gone away.

After sinking more than a mile to the bottom of the Gulf, the Deepwater Horizon claimed the lives of 11 men working on the rig and untold thousands of Gulf marine mammals, birds, shrimp, shellfish and other animals. You would think a disaster of this magnitude would cause us as a nation to stop and reflect on why we were drilling in such deep and treacherous waters to begin with -- especially when we were drilling without an adequate safety net, as the world saw while we watched 4.9 million barrels of Louisiana light crude gush unheeded from the crippled drilling pipe well into the summer.

You would also think a struggling region only beginning to rebound from the natural disasters of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina would have the robust support of an entire nation seeking a way to prevent manmade disasters from devastating the same area all over again.

However, we know a year later that regardless of the human errors involved, this disaster could have been avoided if the oil industry had made the same investments in safety and containment that they unhesitatingly made in research and development for more exotic oil reserves. We also know that the blowout preventer BP relied on to stop the spill jammed when we needed it most. Adding insult to injury, that same design flaw could be attached to dozens of other blowout preventers proposed for use in the Gulf.

CBS News recently found that, not counting the BP disaster, there were at least 6,500 oil and gas spills, leaks, fires or explosions nationwide in 2010 -- an average of 18 per day. We need much better regulation of the oil and gas industry and stronger enforcement standards if we are to drill in the first place. Millions of Gulf residents are still reeling from the oil disaster a year later. BP has not made them whole; their lives are still turned upside down, and the natural resources of the Gulf have been decimated by oil that continues to wash in.

We will not escape in this lifetime the effects of such a tragedy. Oil that contaminated 580 miles of marshes and coastline will never be fully clean, and the species that call the Gulf waters their home will continue to be threatened. If this disaster wrought any good, it is the spotlight it shed on a dysfunctional and corrupt oil industry that has plundered our Gulf waters for too long. Pleading ignorance is no longer an option; we must take action to ensure that an industry with such a potential for destruction is held to stricter standards.

Congress needs to act to prevent this disaster from happening again. The $75 million liability cap on offshore drilling rigs needs to be eliminated entirely. If a company drilling in the Gulf cannot afford to clean up a potential oil spill, they should not be drilling there at all. There must be funding to support more rig inspectors to ensure every oil rig drilling in the Gulf is safe and doing everything up to code. The 30-day limit for the Department of Interior to respond to applications for exploration permits should be at least doubled. Thirty days is just not enough time for federal regulators to assess complicated permit applications and the newly-required worst-case oil spill scenarios.

We cannot allow another tragedy that leaves children without their fathers, wives without their husbands, and parents without their sons. We cannot tolerate another debacle that results in massive closures to fisheries, putting fisherman and those who depend on the tourism industry out of work. We cannot ignore the unknown numbers of dead birds, whales, dolphins, turtles and fish.

Only Congress can enact laws that safeguard Americans from oil spill polluters, and that provide needed resources to the federal government so they can properly oversee high-risk ocean drilling. Unless they take these and other important steps recommended by the President's Oil Spill Commission, our lawmakers in Congress will continue to leave you, me and our oceans defenseless.

Originally appeared in OnEarth Magazine.