The bipartisan, independent Oil Spill Commission yesterday issued a clarion call to action. The conclusions laid out in the final Commission report could not be more stark: without fundamental reforms that hold the industry to higher safety standards and strengthen the government’s authority to enforce more rigorous protections, a disaster could well recur.
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon last April – which left 11 workers dead and poured approximately 170 million gallons of oil into one of America’s most productive marine ecosystems – was characterized by President Obama as the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history. It is chilling to think it could happen again.
Our nation cannot let that happen. 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.
That means we cannot buy the industry argument – methodically countered by the Commission – that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a one-time event that tells us nothing about oil industry operations.
The Commission describes urgent actions that Congress, the Administration and industry must take – they each have a role. But Co-Chairman William Reilly emphasized in his remarks yesterday at the National Press Club that Congress must act.
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 Commission, our lawmakers in Congress will leave you, me and our oceans vulnerable.
Here are the Commission’s specific recommendations to Congress:
Congress should significantly increase the liability cap and financial responsibility requirements for offshore facilities. Currently, oil spill polluters are only required to cover $75 million in damages resulting from an oil spill. BP has waived this cap for the oil spill – a lucky thing for the public, given that the company has already racked up billions of dollars in damages. But if this happened to a company without such deep pockets, the taxpayers and the victims of the spill would be left with the tab. Financial responsibility limits required under the Oil Spill Liability Act should also be increased, because if an oil company does not have adequate means to cover the costs of a spill without going bankrupt, the application of increased liability would have little effect.
Congress should ensure that oversight agencies have the resources they need to do their jobs. The Commission found that the Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, or BOEMRE) was too starved for cash to do its job properly. Diligent oversight of a high-risk activity is an essential function of government, and Congress must identify a clear mechanism for ensuring that all agencies involved in offshore energy activities – including the Department of Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Coast Guard - have the funding to protect our nation’s people and resources.
Congress should direct 80% of Clean Water Act fines to Gulf restoration. The Gulf of Mexico suffers from decades of industrial development - which benefitted all Americans – but today has left the Gulf ecosystem vulnerable and diminished. Pollution from places as far west as Montana and as far east as New York are transported down the Mississippi River and create a giant dead-zone off the coast of Louisiana each summer. Last summer’s oil spill resulted in unprecedented amounts of toxic oil and dispersants poisoning the waters. Penalties related to the spill should help restore the Gulf and help the region prosper.
Congress should facilitate the establishment of an independent oversight agency within the Interior Department to eliminate any internal conflicts of interest. The Interior Department has already taken steps to abolish the infamous Minerals Management Service and to separate revenue collection from regulation. But the Commission clearly stated the DOI reforms need to go further, and called on Congress to create a new, independent authority within DOI to oversee and inspect all offshore activities. The Commission made clear what would be necessary to ensure the new agency’s stature and independence – a director who is Senate-confirmed and who would serve for a five or six year term.
Other key provisions that the Commission called on Congress to enact:
- An amendment to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act that gives our nation’s ocean science agency – NOAA – additional authority to engage in offshore drilling planning and review, and which requires DOI to accept NOAA recommendations unless they pose a threat to the national interest;
- Whistle-blower protections for workers, comparable to what workers in other high-risk industries are afforded;
- A fee on industry leases to help cover the cost of regulation, oversight, and research and development into oil spill response and containment technologies;
- An increase from 30 days to 60 days for the Interior Department to review and approve (or deny) drilling permits;
- Full funding for regional planning bodies to conduct coastal and marine spatial planning as requested in the President’s FY2011 budget; and
- An increase in the per-incident limits of the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to protect oil spill victims and to ensure the government has money to do oil spill damage assessments.
The Commission also recommended that Congressional oversight of safety and environmental issues related to offshore energy development be consolidated to eliminate confusion and overlapping jurisdiction. 
These are essential steps that Congress should swiftly translate into law. Lawmakers: roll up your sleeves and get to work.
This post was first published on NRDC's Switchboard blog.