The Gulf One Year Later: Beyond Rhetoric?

Congress Has Failed to Do More Than Talk About Gulf Coast Restoration

Congress and the federal government still have their heads buried in the sand one year after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill soiled beaches across the Gulf Coast, writes Michael Conathan.

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill  is seen floating on the surface of the water in Bay Jimmy in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on June 26, 2010. No bills have been enacted to address cleanup and recovery in the Gulf. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen floating on the surface of the water in Bay Jimmy in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, on June 26, 2010. No bills have been enacted to address cleanup and recovery in the Gulf. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

See also: One Year Later BP Still Not "Making It Right"

One year ago the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon erupted in a torrent of oil, gas, drilling mud, and flames, claiming the lives of 11 men and setting off an 87-day environmental nightmare. The explosion also triggered an equally ferocious barrage of rhetoric in the nation’s capital. A frantic burst of congressional hearings emerged as the immediate oversight response. As usual, they were full of sound and fury—sadly but not surprisingly—signifying nothing.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that 101 oil-spill-related bills were introduced in the 111th Congress, which came to a close in 2010. Exactly zero were enacted into law. Another 15 have been introduced so far this year—none of which has been acted upon by its committee of jurisdiction.

This is an abject failure on the part of the legislative branch when obvious fixes remain on the table. Mandated liability limits for economic damages incurred by local residents are shamefully low and no mechanism is in place to ensure any fines BP or other responsible parties are forced to pay would actually be returned to a region still devastated by the companies’ negligence.

The limit on liability for economic impacts from an oil spill remains just $75 million. BP recognized that its public relations disaster would only be exacerbated without swift and visible action, so it agreed to create a $20 billion escrow fund to pay claims arising from the accident despite this embarrassingly low liability cap. Given Congress’s reaction it seems BP’s move may have paid off for oil companies. If they will “do the right thing” anyway, why bother changing the law?

The National Commission convened in the aftermath of the disaster by President Barack Obama to investigate the cause of the spill and recommend management overhauls proposed a “significant increase” in liability limits. This is, of course, common sense. But that doesn’t mean Congress will be able to make it happen. According to a report by E&E News Daily, Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) have been “negotiating on language” of legislation to increase liability limits since last September. But they have yet to even introduce a bill.

The House fared slightly better under Democratic control last year when it passed legislation containing sweeping reforms to liability limits, safety standards, remediation funding, and oversight measures—only to have that bill die in the Senate.

But with the change in leadership from Democrat to Republican, the focus has shifted away from overhauling a system proven to contain insufficient safeguards before proceeding with additional drilling.

Instead, House Republicans have stomped on the gas pedal. The first set of oil-related bills marked up by the now Republican-controlled House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources were three introduced by that body’s chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA). Rep. Hastings’s bills would dramatically accelerate the permitting process in the Gulf of Mexico and require the secretary of the interior to open portions of the heretofore untouched outer continental shelf in the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans to more drilling.

Rep. Hastings, in his prepared remarks at the markup, relied on the oft-repeated assumption that additional offshore drilling will lower domestic gas prices. This concept has been resoundingly disproven by CAP’s Dan Weiss and numerous others, including Ken Green of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, using statistics and analysis provided by the Energy Information Association.

Republicans, unfazed by the facts, still insist on pursuing this inexcusable effort in service to Big Oil. In the process they are exploiting the fears of Americans who are assaulted daily by the escalating numbers on their neighborhood gas station marquees. All as oil industry profits increase in conjunction with escalating prices at the pump.

Meanwhile, there are a few glimmers of hope. Both houses of Congress have introduced bills to address a key recommendation of the National Commission Report, which was echoed in a joint report by CAP and Oxfam America. In “Beyond Recovery” we called for legislation mandating 80 percent of BP’s Clean Water Act fines that will ultimately come due as a result of this spill—likely to total between $4.3 billion and $16.9 billion—be sent directly to the Gulf Coast to repair the damage done to both the environment and the economy.

Two bills have been introduced in the Senate that would establish this payment structure. The Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economy of the Gulf Coast Act of 2011 was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and David Vitter (R-LA), and in the House by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA). Additionally, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) introduced the Comprehensive Gulf of Mexico Recovery, Restoration, and Resiliency Act. Both bills would allocate 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines to the region as called for in the National Commission and the CAP-Oxfam reports.

The bills’ sponsors must work swiftly to resolve the remaining differences, strengthen provisions ensuring local stakeholders will have a clear voice in prioritizing the use of these funds, and advance this critical legislation that will not only help the Gulf recover from this tragedy but emerge with a stronger, more diverse and sustainable economy.

The Obama administration has been slightly more effective as Congress grinds its gears. The Department of the Interior renamed the Minerals Management Service as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Regulation, Management, and Enforcement, or BOEMRE. Within that restructuring, permitting decisions are now completely separate from safety standards and inspections. Critics have argued that a single agency responsible for both permitting and safety decisions was too susceptible to undue influence from corporate sources.

BOEMRE is quick to pat itself on the back for developing a new set of regulations aimed at increasing safety and ensuring adequate response to any future spills. But others understandably question whether the environment is appreciably safer than it was in the MMS days when oil industry executives were in some cases literally cozying up to regulators at “cocaine and meth-fueled sex and oil parties.”

Further, an AP report last week quoted Dr. Charles Perrow, a Yale professor, saying he has “seen no evidence that [the oil industry has] marshaled containment efforts that are sufficient to deal with another major spill.” Oil companies claim to have developed a containment system capable of capturing up to 60,000 barrels of oil per day from a well as deep as 8,000 feet below the surface. But Michael Bromwich, the head of BOEMRE, conceded that this system, while promising, has yet to be tested in ocean conditions.

Recall that one of the highest-profile failures in the response effort to the BP spill was the containment dome that was to be lowered over the spewing blowout preventer. The oil giant spent weeks developing this apparatus only to have it clog with slush almost immediately upon being lowered to the seabed. This is why we can take no solace from assurances of the oil industry that they have everything under control until technology passes muster in the complex ocean environment. .

Even without proof of the new well-containment system’s functionality, more drilling is moving ahead. Ten new deepwater exploration permits have been issued to date, including the first, which was issued to a conglomerate in which BP was the largest shareholder. The new safety measures BOEMRE has instituted in its Drilling Safety Rule and Notices to Leaseholders may create additional paperwork and more heartfelt promises from oil companies but until the response technology is field tested, they have not achieved the goal of providing Americans with the protection we all deserve.

Such protection must extend not just to the impacts of drilling accidents but also to adequate vetting of the materials we use in response. The Environmental Protection Agency approved the application of nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants following the spill, despite having no knowledge of the long-term health impacts exposure could cause either Gulf Coast residents or marine species. If the EPA has done any additional testing of dispersant chemicals, it has kept those efforts awfully quiet.

One year ago, a tragic series of accidents kicked off the single-biggest environmental disaster this country has ever experienced. “Never again” is a refrain heard all too often in the aftermath of such events. It’s time Congress and federal agencies put their words into action and get serious about taking the steps necessary to fulfill that promise.

Michael Conathan is Director of Ocean Policy at American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy