05/28/2010 04:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

BP Should Help Us Build Our Clean Future

Make BP pay royalties on spilled oil and invest them in clean energy

When explosion and fire ripped through the Deepwater Horizon, the first priority was saving the lives of the crew. Sadly, for eleven workers, it was too late.

Then came the challenge of sealing the well with the blowout preventer, a mile below the surface. As we now know all too well, that effort was a complete failure.

Next there was a massive effort to contain the oil before it reached the fragile coastal ecosystem. But this week the first images of dead pelicans and oil coated marshes began to appear.

What comes next will be the assessment of the overwhelming damage to the Gulf Coast economy and environment and the long process of repairing that damage. The size of this spill is almost incomprehensible &emdash; reports of the damage have only just begun. And despite all the rhetoric we've heard, I don't think anyone is really convinced that every last fishing family will be made whole and every wetland returned to its pre-spill condition any time soon.

Throughout all this, the public outrage has been palpable--in Washington, among the pundits and talking heads, in my own home state of Maine, and truly everywhere in the country. And while politician after politician has been clamoring to be the loudest voice shouting "make BP pay" it's been a challenge to find a clearly articulated progressive way forward--for the Gulf, or our entire nation.

Our response to this disaster--as Americans and progressives--will affect the economic and environmental health of our country and our planet for the rest of our lives. To help the Gulf recover, and to use this disaster to move our nation towards a renewable energy future, I propose that:

  • BP must be held accountable for this spill, and we should use the full force of government to force them to pay for every dime of the Gulf's recovery.
  • BP should pay royalties on every barrel of oil they have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. That's the American people's oil, and we should be compensated for it.
  • Those royalty payments should be used to create clean energy projects. Let's make the big oil companies help us end our dependence on fossil fuels.

With the possible exception of Senate candidate Rand Paul, it's hard to imagine there is anyone in this country who doesn't think that BP should be made to pay--and pay dearly--for the damage they've done. Not only do we need to hold BP accountable, but we should also throw the book at them for every civil and criminal penalty that applies. But we also should look beyond reparation and retribution and use this crisis as an opportunity to move this country down the path to a clean energy future, and BP should help us get there.

Oil companies pay royalties on oil they sell. But the fact that millions of gallons of oil from the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf will never make it to market shouldn't matter. BP should pay royalties on every drop that comes out of that well--whether or not they capture and sell it and whether or not they are proven to be negligent in the spill. By drilling quickly and ignoring what sound to be the warning signs of a blow out, BP caused massive amounts of oil to be spilled and wasted, and they should pay the same royalties on that oil, just as if they sold it.

Once we collect those royalties, we should put them to work helping developers of offshore clean energy to get their projects approved and permitted. For too long the system has been biased in favor of oil and gas developers: sweetheart lease deals, generous subsidies and a regulatory process so slanted in favor of Big Oil that often permit reviews are simply waived.

Incredibly, oil and gas companies don't have to pay certain environmental costs that amount to small change to them, while an offshore wind project start-up is faced with fees that could mean the difference between building a wind farm and packing up and going home. One way to level the playing field is to put the millions of dollars in royalties I believe BP owes on the spilled oil into a special fund to help cover those environmental permitting fees for ocean-based clean energy projects.

There is an incredible renewable energy resource off both coasts of this country--wind and tidal energy that can power our economy, create good paying jobs and reduce greenhouse gas pollution. It's time for us to start using it and if big oil companies like BP make that transition a little easier, then there is some justice in the world.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree represents Maine's 1st District and is Vice Co-Chair of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition