06/25/2010 08:01 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Nelson: Keeping Florida (and Planet Earth) Safe From Big Oil

Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has a reputation as a staunch advocate for all Floridians and a moderate voice in the increasingly partisan world of national politics.

He was elected to the U.S. Senate in November 2000, after serving six years as a member of the Florida cabinet. He currently serves on the Senate Commerce, Armed Services, Budget, Finance, Intelligence, and Aging Committees and is recognized as the leading congressional expert on NASA.

In 2006, Senator Nelson partnered with Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and other coastal legislators to thwart the oil industry's lobbying for expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. This effort resulted in his supporting a compromise bill, passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, which created a no-drilling buffer zone around the West Coast of Florida until 2022.

With BP's catastrophe in April off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, we talked.

Kathleen Wells: Tell me, how did we get here? What happened in D.C.? What went wrong that allowed the Deepwater Horizon crisis/catastrophe/disaster to happen?

Senator Bill Nelson: A cozy, incestuous relationship over some two decades in which the government regulator, basically, was controlled by the oil industry; and, therefore, the checks and balances that should have been there with the regulator did not occur. And as a result, you see the Inspector General's report from 2008, and that report showed that cozy relationship - sex, booze, trips and gifts--the revolving door. Somebody comes right out of the oil industry, they revolve into the government regulator, and the door returns again and revolves, and they go back out into the industry. That's not the check and balances that we need.

Kathleen Wells: President Obama, in his speech last week regarding the issue, said he is going to replace the head of the MMS (Minerals Management Service) agency. Is that sufficient?

Senator Nelson: They need to clean house. I think Ken Salazar started to clean house, after all of those years where the oil industry was ruling the roost, but it looks like it still has to be swept out some more.

Kathleen Wells: We are talking about a culture/philosophy in D.C. -- and you mentioned two decades -- where regulations have either not been present or they have been ineffectual. How can this be rectified? What needs to be done?

Senator Nelson: Well, it's the age-old problem. Certain industries have their way. And the checks and balances of government regulation are thwarted. We've seen this in the insurance industry - with the state insurance commissioners, most of who are appointed, and go about doing the revolving door bit. We've certainly seen it in the Wall Street big financial firms, and we saw the excesses of that. That almost took us into a complete financial meltdown.

And when those excesses occur, unfortunately, many times our American history tells us that we go through a tragedy and then we have to correct it. And that's certainly what's going on with this Gulf oil spill.

Kathleen Wells: I've read reports where you state your frustration with the clean up that is currently taking place. Can you elaborate on that?

Senator Nelson: Information is not flowing. You need a military-like command-and-control system so decision get made and acted on quickly.

Kathleen Wells: Recently, Bill Frist mentioned on the Bill Maher show that Republicans will attempt to be saboteurs with regard to health care legislation that has just recently passed. How can we safeguard against them gutting -- being saboteurs -- with any legislation that comes out now that deals with this spill?

Senator Nelson: Well, I'm going to answer your question in a non-partisan way. Your question was asked partisan and I will answer it from a historical standpoint.

In the history of America's politics, there has always been interest groups' politics. And someone advocates their particular interest. And many times -- through chicanery, through political money, through economic power -- those interests are so powerful, that they control.

I'll give you the great example of England in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It was [through] the economic power of the shipping industry and the English sea captains that [they] had this very lucrative triangular trade. They would take goods from England to the African coast. They would enslave the Africans. They [would] take them into ships on the next leg of the triangle to the new world, where they would be used primarily in the sugar fields, and they would bring sugar and rum back on the third leg of the trade.

It was an industry that was so economically powerful it was similar to being all of the 100 top Fortune 500.

And it took a Member of Parliament named William Wilberforce -- it took him 20 years to break it, but he finally did.

Kathleen Wells: So do you think we are going to break the big interest/lobby hold in America?

Senator Nelson: Now, I want to go back to oil. There are three things that I want to see, and the third thing is that we can take this tragedy and turn it into triumph. If the President can marshal the political will for us -- to wean us -- from our addiction [to] petroleum, particularly foreign oil, of which today consists of about 65 percent of our daily consumption that would be one thing that I'd like to see happen . That [oil] comes from places like the Persian Gulf, Nigeria, and Venezuela, which are three very unstable parts of the world.

Kathleen Wells: If I remember correctly, the President, in his speech last week, said we spend one billion dollars a day buying oil from other countries. Is that correct? So this is going to take changing our culture.

Senator Nelson: It's going to take changes in our practices and in our wallets and in our financial incentives and in our tax incentives. We need to unleash American ingenuity, through research and development, to develop the alternative fuels.

Kathleen Wells: Talk to me about how this catastrophe has directly impacted Florida?

Senator Nelson: There is so much oil out there, sloshing around in the Gulf, that it's now entered Florida waters. The winds have blessed us for a couple of months, but now the winds have brought the oil to our coast. And there are not enough skimmers out there scooping it up off the surface out in the Gulf. And even if there were, there would still be some that would get in, as it already has, into Perdido Pass and Perdido Bay -- into Pensacola Pass, where I saw it out in the Gulf last Monday. I saw it in Pensacola Bay.

There are two types: if it is weathered enough on the surface, it turns into tar and it forms the tar balls. And those will sink right underneath a boom, and so a boom doesn't control it. And those tar balls get into the wetlands -- and they have already -- behind Pensacola beach.

And then, if it's not weathered as much as tar balls, it looks like this reddish-brown gunk that I saw in Pensacola Bay, headed right for downtown Pensacola. And it is the most sickening sight. I could liken it to a sight that you could identify with, but I'll keep it cleaned up, and I won't.

Kathleen Wells: That's very disturbing. President Obama characterized BP's conduct as reckless. That word reckless has legal implications. Do you agree with that characterization?

Senator Nelson: I think you are going to see lawsuits for a long time. And that's another thing that I've called for, (and I'm pleased to hear the President [agrees]) and I want to see it come into fruition and that's a trust fund that would be set aside, paid for by BP, that would be operated by a third-party administrator. We know from the Exxon Valdez experience, that a lot of those claims do not get paid and people go out of business - and, you [don't] need that. What a number of us in the Senate have called for is a $20-billion trust fund - a set aside - so that people know that their legitimate claims are going to be paid.

And the other thing of the three that I said needs to be done is a command-and-control structure, very similar to a military chain of command, where someone gives an order and it's going to be carried out or else. And we certainly have seen that kind of command structure break down in the first two months. As a matter of fact, Florida officials in Escambia County, which is Pensacola, were not even notified that the gunk had entered Florida waters. And it's improving, but you need a sharp command-and-control structure.

Kathleen Wells: Go over the three things again you'd like to see happen with this disaster.

Senator Nelson: Four things. One, get the well capped and the oil cleaned up. Two, end the cozy relationship between federal drilling regulators and Big Oil. Three, hold BP accountable for the blowout, the clean up, and the cost of all the economic and environmental damages. And four, get our economy off oil -- moving our cars and trucks to an affordable alternative fuel.

Kathleen Wells: Recently, the Senate rolled out climate change legislation. And contained within that legislation is language that you previously proposed that called for a suspension of any new offshore drilling until the cause of this Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig is determined safe and certified by the Secretary of the Interior. So, once it is certified, do you think it will be OK to continue to drill?

Senator Nelson: Unfortunately, we are not going to have any other choice. Now, separate the production wells (they are already going) from the exploration wells. The safety problem on the blowout preventer was the exploration well at deep water. They think they can be fairly safe in shallow water. But, yes, they ought to suspend the deep-water exploration drilling until we know from the report what the problem was so that we don't have this thing happen again.

Kathleen Wells: Elaborate on this notion of us not having any other choice but to continue to drill. Elaborate on that notion?

Senator Nelson: We are a petroleum-based economy, and you can't turn that around overnight. And that's why I say we ought to make triumph out of tragedy by getting this country on a path, through our American research and development with alternative fuels, more efficient systems, and better vehicles and more efficient energy-use systems.

Kathleen Wells: In your speech on the floor regarding passage of the health care bill, you stated the philosophy that we aren't put on the earth for ourselves, but we are placed here on earth for each other. Relate that sentiment/philosophy to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Senator Nelson: I think I would relate it to the time that I had the privilege of seeing our home from a different perspective, and that is from a window of a spacecraft. And I could see that this planet is so beautiful and yet it looks so fragile. And yet, from that perspective in space, looking back, I could see how we are messing it up.

I had this feeling that when I came back I needed to be a better steward of what the good Lord has given us. And when we despoil because of mistakes on safety mechanisms and a blowout preventer, and we fill up the Gulf of Mexico with oil, we are not being good stewards of Planet Earth.*

Kathleen Wells: Thank you, Senator Nelson.

*In the mid-1980s, with public support for manned space missions waning, NASA decided to let civilians travel into orbit with shuttle crews. On Jan. 12, 1986, Senator Nelson traveled into space on the shuttle Columbia as a payload specialist, spending six days in orbit around the Earth. "It changed my life," Nelson said of the experience.