07/08/2010 02:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

To BP: the meter's running - you spill it, you buy it

Seeing the picture spreading on the Internet of a sign at a BP gas station with the company policy “you are responsible for all spills” made me think of something.

Let’s say you are filling your car at a BP gas station, the numbers on the pump steadily ticking. But when you pull out the pump you give it an extra squeeze, spilling oil on the ground. The meter on the pump just keeps rolling. In other words, you spill it, you buy it.

Unfortunately, we aren’t holding oil companies accountable to the same policy they hold their patrons. I’ve introduced legislation to change that and have set up a tool on my web site to remind oil companies that the meter’s running.

My legislation would force BP—and any other oil company in the future—to pay royalties on all the oil it spills.  It’s not enough to have them pay for the environmental damage; they need to be held responsible for the very limited, very valuable natural resource they are wasting. BP has leased the right to drill oil belonging to the American people, and I think that whether they refine it or spill it, they still owe us for it.

The tool on my website uses an estimate of the gallons of oil being spilled each day along with royalties of about $13 a barrel to track just how large that amount is becoming.  It’s easy to share on Facebook, Twitter or by email, and embed on your own website or blog, too.

Why do we need this royalties legislation? The current law holds oil companies responsible for spilled oil only when they are found to be negligent.  Unfortunately, this may happen only after a lengthy legal process.  It leaves a lot of room for these companies to find loopholes and a lot of time before the American people receive payment, if any, for their lost property.

The process should be automatic and timely.  The numbers on my web ticker show just how much we could be using on pressing priorities, including developing clean energy sources like offshore wind and tidal power.  

What’s more, we need to send oil companies a message that after years of relaxed regulation we are going to start holding them accountable and watching them closely.  For example, getting clear numbers from BP on how much oil they have spilled has ended in nothing but frustration—this legislation would give us legal leverage to force them to provide hard, accurate numbers.    

Every day that we wake up to headlines of the worsening spill is another reminder that we need to change our energy system.  Not only does our dependence on oil make us take terrible risks with our environment, but we don’t have enough tools to hold responsible the companies we trust with this dangerous gamble.  Only an oil company would be allowed to waste billions of dollars’ worth of a resource they don’t own—causing untold devastation—and then make a case for why they shouldn’t pay for it.

This legislation takes a small step in the right direction, and this ticker shows an ever-rising number that the American people shouldn’t pick up the tab for any longer.