What the Oil Spill Commission Missed - Oceana USA
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January 20, 2011

What the Oil Spill Commission Missed

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.

Last week, the federal government released a report from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. In some ways, the Commission got it exactly right. After extensive study, the Commission concluded that:

•    The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster was not an isolated incident, and
•    It was the result of systemic failure in the oil industry and its government regulators.

But where the Commission failed was in its recommendations for the future of the oil industry in America. While acknowledging that offshore drilling can never be safe, the Commission declined to recommend removing the cap on liability for drilling disasters like the Deepwater Horizon. Explaining this decision on national television, Chairman Reilly said that some Commission members worried that removing liability limits for disasters would cause the international oil companies to transfer operations to countries that limited their risks from failures like the one this summer in the Gulf.
So this begs a very big question:

If ocean oil drilling really can be made safe, why would the oil companies still worry about the risk of a catastrophic failure?

The Commission looked for ways to reduce the risks. But the principled answer is clearly that the international oil companies have no right to gamble with our beaches and our fisheries. And as long as they won’t back up their proposed drilling with an unlimited promise to fully compensate anyone from a catastrophe, their promises to “drill safely” are simply not credible. To understand what the oil companies really think, their wallets, not their words, speak the truth.

In continuing ocean oil drilling, the international oil companies are risking our assets. They are playing, metaphorically and literally, with our money.  

Believing that the international oil companies will stop playing dice with our precious ocean resources like believing in ‘gambling carefully.’ Everyone knows that if you sit at the roulette wheel long enough, you’ll lose all your money – and if we let the oil companies keep drilling off our oceans, eventually we’ll lose our beaches and our fisheries.

As our senior campaign director for clean energy, Jackie Savitz noted:

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.

Here’s what the federal government should do if it’s really serious about protecting us from offshore drilling disasters:

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. We won major protections in December when many of America’s shorelines were removed from drilling plans, but we should protect 100 percent of America’s coasts, not just some of them.

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.

We can be saved from another Deepwater Horizon, but not if we leave change up to the oil industry. In the meantime, we’ll continue to fight to protect our oceans from dangerous and dirty offshore drilling, and to promote safe, sustainable, clean energy.