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January 13, 2011

Oil Spill Commission Finds Right Problems, Wrong Solutions

Jackie Savitz is Oceana’s Senior Campaign Director for Pollution Programs. This post originally appeared at the Huffington Post.

Remember that evil offshore oil deposit that went out of control last summer, blew up a drilling rig and then spewed oil and gas into the gulf of Mexico for months until the government forced the oil companies to finally stop it? Well, surprise! It turns out it wasn’t the oil deposit that was out of control, it was the drilling companies. And the National Oil Spill Commission report puts it all on the table.

Unfortunately, the Commission’s recommendations don’t fit its findings. Why after documenting gory detail of corporate mismanagement, missteps, miscalculations and mistakes that paint a picture reminiscent of a Three Stooges episode, would your recommendations look like they were made after a run of the mill oil leak?

Why would you opt to continue limiting liability? Shouldn’t companies that cause disasters like this one be required to pay for all of the damages? If the Commission thinks not, what does that suggest about those in line for BP payments? Well, as long as we’re sharing the damages, maybe the companies could share some record profits too. I’m sure many out-of-work fishermen and tourism workers would be willing to help with those. And the Commission suggested that the industry itself should create an Institute to set and enforce standards. Seriously? We’ve seen that before. All you get is a false sense of security and a lot of greenwashing.

The seemingly endless list of missteps, miscalculations, mistakes and mismanagement detailed in the report seems gets more and more unbelievable as you go. The well fails a pressure test, but they soldier on. The cement tests didn’t come out right, but they use the cement anyway. We got the wrong equipment shipped out here, but hey, let’s go ahead with it. The right tools sometimes slow down the process anyhow. Let’s pull out the pressure-building mud from the well, so it isn’t there to stop a blowout. We probably don’t need it. Does the blowout preventer even work? Guess not. The list goes on and on.

Let’s face it. Offshore drilling is on the outer limits of our technical capabilities. Few people know how to do it right. Most of them are employed by an industry that this report shows puts time (also known as money) ahead of safety. Not just environmental safety, but as we saw in April, profits trumped human safety too. Perhaps not intentionally, but the profit driver is powerful and it’s not going away.

What level of government oversight is really necessary to protect our oceans and those who depend on them? Do we need to regulate every material and every tool, in every step of each of the offshore drilling phases? Exploration, production, decommissioning? And since laws can be ignored, do we need to have an inspector on every rig and every step of the way? That’s the only scenario I can see where – maybe – we can prevent most accidents. But that’s not realistic, is it? Who would pay for that? Is the oil and gas really worth it? Is Congress going to require this? That’s a long-shot.

To truly prevent a re-run of the BP Deepwater Drilling Disaster, here is what the Commission should have recommended:

  1. President Obama should stop new offshore drilling. This is a dirty and dangerous practice, and we have learned that many things can go wrong and accidents are difficult to prevent.
  2. If drilling continues, Congress should pass legislation to stop new offshore leasing. Congressman Pallone has introduced such legislation and Congress and the President should make its passage a priority.
  3. In the meantime, Congress should remove the liability cap, to protect those harmed by future spills. The report makes clear that such a spill could happen again, and if it does, there should be no limit to companies’ liability.
  4. The President should create a national energy commission to determine how we can replace the oil we get from drilling in the Gulf of Mexico (roughly 8 percent of what we use) to alleviate the need for offshore drilling. This commission should be charged with developing a national plan to deliver clean and sustainable energy sources and energy efficiency measures to replace the fossil fuels we get from the Gulf.
  5. As long as drilling continues, independent government inspectors should be on site at all times to ensure companies are not making cost-cutting or other risky decisions that increase the risks of a spill.

You can follow Jackie on Twitter @JackieSavitz