Every day, 200,000 gallons of crude oil are spewing out of the damaged wells from British Petroleum's sunken offshore drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon. The oil slick is now the size of Delaware - and growing.
Analysts are only beginning to calculate the economic and environmental consequences of this blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Gulf Coast. Industries such as fishing and tourism stand to lose tens of billions of dollars, from Texas to Florida. The fishing industry alone employs over 40,000 workers in the Gulf States, with revenue totaling more than $3 billion annually.
The Gulf Coast accounts for 40 percent of the wetlands in the lower 48 states. This spill could not have come at a worse time for waterfowl, sea turtles and other wildlife, which are migrating to the Gulf to nest and lay eggs. Plankton, the main food source of Gulf shrimp, is being destroyed. As the oil settles, bottom feeders such as blue crab will be poisoned. Many fish like the bluefin tuna will survive, but the oil they ingest will contaminate whatever consumes them.
In the final analysis, the damage from this spill will make it the worst environmental and economic disaster in U.S. history.
We need to minimize the risk of another such catastrophe. Three steps are key:
1. Enforce strict safety standards for all offshore rigs, wherever their parent company is domiciled. BP and the Deepwater Horizon were exempt from an environmental impact study regarding offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Every offshore rig should have the technology necessary to prevent the uncontrolled release of oil.
2. Raise the cap on liability for companies responsible for oil spills, and provide assistance for those affected. While an oil company must pay for the cleanup costs associated with a spill, the company's civil liability is capped at $75 million. For a company like BP, $75 million is a single day's profit. The interests of justice and effective deterrence warrant a higher cap on liability.
3. Provide for a swift and effective response to offshore oil spills. Existing technology could minimize the effects of a spill. Burn booms would allow for quick deployment and elimination of the oil in a controlled and safe manner. In the case of this recent disaster, the government had only a single burn-boom available but even it was not utilized in time. If we are to allow offshore drilling, we should also research and develop other means of effectively cleaning up oil on water.
The United States should accelerate the production, use and research of alternatives fuels. At the same time, we should put in place policies that make offshore drilling as safe and sound as possible, before we open any more of our economy or our environment to harm.