10/19/2010 04:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Where Is Congress Six Months After the BP Gulf Disaster?

Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogWednesday marks the six-month “anniversary” of the world’s largest peacetime oil spill, the result of the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico that tragically claimed the lives of 11 men on April 20, 2010.

As is fitting for any anniversary, I wanted to reflect on where we are, six long months later.

Some progress has been made.  Interior Secretary Salazar has begun to restructure the agency that oversaw offshore oil and gas activities, although many important decisions remain to be made; and he has issued new regulations, with more to come, to increase the oversight and safety of drilling.  President Obama appointed a National Commission to investigate the root causes leading to this tragedy, which is due to report in mid-January.  Navy Secretary Ray Mabus issued a Gulf Coast Restoration Plan, laying out a blueprint for the activities necessary to reverse the decades-long damage to the Gulf Coast, which was followed by an Executive Order establishing the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force to begin implementation of this plan.

What is noticeably absent is any final action on the legislative front.  You may think that Congress would waste no time in reforming how we drill for oil in the wake of this unprecedented disaster.  Indeed, following the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig, there were over 50 congressional hearings scrutinizing the factors that led to the disaster, with representatives from both parties howling with outrage at the too-cozy relationship between the federal government and the industry they regulate.

Yet, the Senate is dangerously close to running out this Congress without passing any legislation to hold oil companies fully responsible for the damage they cause, and to protect worker safety and our oceans, coasts and communities from future oil spills.     

Such inaction is inexcusable.  There is no valid reason for the Senate to fail to vote on its oil spill bill -- the Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act (S. 3663).  The language included in the bill has been vetted and passed by Senate committees, and a companion bill, H.R. 3534, passed the U.S. House of Representatives in August.  Furthermore, a compromise on liability language, the one hold-up before the August recess, is within reach. 

It is urgent to pass initial legislation to respond to the problems we already know exist.  While the administration can take important steps on its own, only Congress can change the underlying laws that govern oil drilling, require public accountability and authorize needed funds.

The legislation passed by the House and currently in the Senate would re-orient the national offshore energy policy to ensure oil and gas development is more balanced with environmental protection.  While the Interior Department has begun to issue stronger safety regulations, they must still be consistent with existing law, which calls for “expedient and orderly development” of the ocean’s oil and gas resources.  Only Congress can change this mandate, and direct agencies to properly consider the protection of the ocean and coastal environment equally with development.

Additionally, only Congress can require Senate confirmation of the new directors who will take over the abolished Minerals Management Service.  Moving forward, offshore energy activities must be subject to the highest oversight, which means holding agency leadership directly accountable to our representatives in Congress.

Third, Congress holds the purse strings, and only they can make funding available to protect, maintain and restore the oceans and coasts that are most at-risk from oil and gas development.  The House bill does this by establishing a new Ocean Resource and Conservation Assistance (ORCA) fund, and the Senate should strengthen its bill by including the bi-partisan National Endowment for the Oceans Act.  Both bills also fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which can protect American waters and lands in perpetuity.

Congress should also act now because public and even government attention to the disaster has already begun to dissipate.  But a lack of attention will only make future problems more likely.  It is inconceivable to many of us that the worst oil spill in America, which took five months to fully contain, should be a back-burner issue six months in.  If we want to get something done, we need to get it done now.  Senators, it’s up to you to not let us down. 

Take action now and tell your Senators that inaction is not an option in responding to America’s worst oil spill.