As the Gulf oil disaster has faded from the TV screens of the American public, it is staggering how quickly the oil industry has abandoned its earnest self-reflection and returned to the familiar song and dance to expand offshore drilling, even before new safety reforms are fully implemented.
Indeed, the investigations into the root causes of the largest oil spill in American history have not yet been concluded, and already the industry is seeking to overturn the Obama Administration’s recent decision to hold off new drilling in the Atlantic Ocean and Eastern Gulf of Mexico as the Administration addresses “lessons learned” from the Gulf oil disaster. The President’s announcement protects these waters from the kind of catastrophic spill still polluting the Gulf seven months after the BP disaster.
Clearly, the oil and gas industry believes it can wield its tremendous influence in Congress to overturn needed precautions put in place by our federal authorities. And given the Senate’s complete failure to pass any legislation responding to an oil disaster that killed 11 workers, injured 17 more, and led to a loss of livelihood for hundreds, if not thousands of families who depend on the now-poisoned Gulf waters, it is easy to understand why the industry feels so emboldened.
Already, key reforms to address the regulatory lapses that led to the Gulf tragedy, that previously had broad support, are now held out as too burdensome on the industry. On Tuesday, Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) sent a letter opposing a provision added to an appropriations bill that would give the Interior Department more time to review drilling permits for exploratory wells – the exact type of well that blew in the Gulf. For Senator Murkowski, this is a complete reversal of her previous vote. This same provision was included in the bill, which Senator Murkowski co-sponsored, that passed unanimously out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
This key reform is critical. The Council on Environmental Quality, in its report of review procedures by the Department of the Interior, found that not undertaking this reform “may impose constraints on the agency’s ability to undertake a more complete [e.g. adequate] environmental review.” Currently, the agency has only 30-days to conduct environmental reviews of these permits. Extending this statutory deadline was one of the first requests of the Administration following the Gulf blow-out.
One could argue that these Senators are simply looking out for the interests they represent. But why go to bat for the oil industry before Congress has passed needed safety reforms, like ensuring that oil spill polluters are responsible for 100% of all of their damages? Currently, companies responsible for an oil spill from an offshore facility are only liable for up to $75 million in damages. In the Gulf, BP established a $20 billion fund to compensate innocent victims of the spill, but it certainly wasn't required by law to do so. If we see another comparable disaster, there is no reason why the perpetrator couldn’t walk away once the $75 million cap was met.
The risk of another major blow-out is still very real. We learned today from the Wall Street Journal that the safety record of the offshore drilling industry has been declining for the past two years. And just last week, another oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, injuring three workers.
We can do better. Congress can do better. They must pass oil spill response legislation to protect worker safety and the environment. Tell them to. They must also ally themselves with the Administration’s approach to proceed with caution, and with full knowledge of what went so terribly wrong back on April 20th, 2010.
There's no need to jeopardize the 2 million jobs and the $128 billion annual economy that depend on our nation’s ocean resources when drilling will do little to relieve America's oil addiction. And we shouldn't roll the dice on another BP-style blow out before we put the safeguards in place that we need.
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Let's not forget this disaster or those who are living with the aftermath. NRDC partnered with StoryCorps and Bridge the Gulf to record, share and preserve the stories and experiences of those living through the BP oil disaster: