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Six Months After the Spill, What We Still Need to Do to Prevent Another Disaster

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It was six months ago that the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 men and sending 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion continues to reverberate half a year later.

Up to 50 percent of the oil may still remain in the Gulf, fishermen are still out of work or uncertain if their catch is safe, and the marine ecosystem is still degraded.

Yet, what is even more alarming is that America is in danger of repeating this tragedy.

Six months after the largest peacetime oil spill in history, we have failed to take the steps that would best prevent another devastating spill. While the federal government has made progress by issuing new safety standards, Congress should be moving right now to make drilling safer.

After all, the laws on the books are the same, America’s level of oil consumption is the same, and our scientific understanding of oil spills is largely the same as before the BP blowout.

We can’t keep doing nearly everything the same and expect different results. As actor Edward James Olmos said in an ad about the spill for NRDC’s Action Fund, that is the definition of loco.  “It's time to regain our sanity,” Olmos says. “America doesn't want more oil disasters.”

Instead, Americans want Congress to make necessary changes. They support efforts to restore the Gulf and hold BP accountable. They also support efforts to transform the failed energy policies that fuel risky drilling. According to a poll conducted by the NRDC Action Fund, voters overwhelmingly support clean-energy legislation that creates jobs and limits climate-change pollution.

We know what it takes to protect coastal communities and marine life from devastating oil spills. We just need to start now, and this is how we begin.

Pass the Oil Spill Bill to Reform Offshore Drilling

Operating at the frontier of knowledge in conditions more challenging than deep space, wells like BP’s are inherently dangerous. To make matters worse, the drive into deeper and riskier Gulf waters occurred in a context in which our watchdog agencies were defanged and compromised, creating an atmosphere in which oil-company engineers sometimes penciled in their own responses to inspection forms.This reckless wildcatting and lax regulatory culture has to end. The Department of Interior issued new regulations -- with more to follow -- that will begin to make needed changes, but Congress must act as well. Only Congress has the power to strengthen the statutes that govern offshore drilling and hold companies fully accountable for damages. The House passed a promising bill in August, but the Senate went home for elections without passing key legislation to prevent this kind of disaster from happening again. Click here to tell your lawmakers to pass spill legislation as soon as they return in mid-November.

Respond to Immediate Health Concerns

Introducing 200 million gallons of oil into an environment has serious implications for people’s health. Yet government testing of seafood and worker safety has been woefully inadequate and much of the data has been withheld from the public. The FDA should fix their flawed seafood testing, and the government should launch studies of residents’ ongoing health effects.

Conduct Independent Scientific Research

Time and again, America has failed to conduct thorough research after oil spills. We can’t afford to lose another opportunity to learn how to prevent and prepare for future spills. BP has committed to funding $500 million over 10 years into independent research, but that’s only a fraction of what’s needed. Meanwhile, the BP money is going to be distributed in a way that may put Gulf state’s political interests ahead of scientific expertise.Science should not fall victim to local politics. As I wrote in a recent letter to BP’s CEO, the research money must get into the hands of the best scientists in the world, not just those who live in the Gulf.

Unleash Technologies that Help Us Use Oil More Efficiently

America’s 800 million-gallon-a-day oil habit has encouraged energy companies to push past the limits of safe and reliable drilling. We burn oil in outdated engines as if it weren’t one of the most valuable resources we have, and we turn a blind eye to the dangers involved in filling our tanks.

We should use oil as efficiently as we possibly can. As I explain in my new book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction,  technologies exist today that can help us do that, but we need smart policies to make efficiency the norm instead of the exception. Last month, Obama administration officials said they are considering issuing fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks equivalent to at least 47 miles per gallon and as high as 62 gallons by 2025. Setting the bar on the high end of this range will save 80 percent more oil than setting it at the low end. We are urging the administration to go high -- a move that will save American families and American businesses money on fuel.

Together with more investment in public transit and low-carbon fuel options and a concerted effort to shift our freight transfer from trucks to rails and to design our communities so we are not sitting in traffic, America can cut our dependence on oil in half, create jobs for American workers, and better protect natural treasures like the Gulf of Mexico.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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