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Spill Commissioners Grade America's Ability to Prevent Another Oil Spill

Frances Beinecke

Posted April 17, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil, Reviving the World's Oceans, U.S. Law and Policy

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The second anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico brings a stark reminder of how much remains to be done to make offshore oil drilling safer. That is the central conclusion of a report that I and the other members of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling issued today. Our report confirms that we need to keep pushing our leaders to create stronger safeguards and more vigilant oversight.

The commission, appointed by President Obama, officially disbanded last year after we issued our final recommendations. We have now formed a group called Oil Spill Commission Action because it is clear Americans must keep the pressure on in order to protect our coastal communities and marine riches from another devastating spill.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - FSU Sampling Cruise - June 22, 2010

We need only look to the Gulf to realize why it is so critical that America gets this right. Two years after the spill, small businesses are still trying to regain their footing after the disaster brought tourism to a halt. Shrimpers are still trying to make up for lost earnings, yet some say catches were down 80 percent in 2011. And still the tar balls keep coming. The first 10 days of 2012 alone brought three tons of these oily clumps to the beaches of Alabama and Mississippi.

Marine species are revealing what it means to live in waters inundated with this oil. An unusually high number of bottlenose dolphins have beached along Gulf shores since the spill, particularly in Barataria Bay—an area heavily exposed to BP oil. Roughly 40 decaying sea turtles were found in March of 2012, marking a repeat of high turtle deaths last year. And a large coral formation at the bottom of the sea remains coated with oil from the spill and is dying.

Yet even before we have a full understanding of what the spill is doing to marine life, new deepwater wells are being drilled, more offshore leases are being sold, and oil companies are gunning to get into the highly sensitive Arctic Ocean.

Are we better protected from an offshore oil disaster than we were two years ago? The commissioners found that while some progress has been made, much more remains to be done.

Congress, in particular, has abdicated its responsibility. The commissioners gave it a grade of D because it has failed to pass a single law to improve safety and environmental protection in the wake of the BP Gulf disaster. Congress must act to make drilling safer and help restore the Gulf of Mexico.

We gave the oil industry a grade of C+. It has taken initial steps to improve its safety culture. It committed to creating a safety institute modeled on the one established by the nuclear industry. But instead of making the institute independent—as the National Commission recommended—it is housing it within the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying giant. Meanwhile, the industry continues to rely on blowout preventers with a proven design defect, making many deepwater wells subject to the same failure we saw at the Macondo site.

The administration has made the most progress implementing the Commission’s recommendations. The Department of Interior has separated the leasing and environmental review functions from the safety and enforcement duties, and it has appointed a chief scientist to run the environmental division. Some new regulations are in place but several more are in the development stage. The commissioners gave the administration a B.

However, the administration has to do a better job enforcing new safeguards. Michael Bromwich, the former administration official who restructured the drilling agencies, recently called for more oversight, saying “we need to see evidence of aggressive enforcement.”

Until we resolve outstanding issues of safety and oversight, we must not put more coastal regions on a collision course with faulty blowout preventers or underfunded government enforcers. This is especially true in the Arctic Ocean, a place dominated by severe conditions and vast distances. Even if crews could arrive on the scene of a blowout, no one has yet determined how to clean up an oil spill in pack ice or broken ice. The commissioners gave the administration a C for how it is handling frontier areas like the Arctic.

The Obama administration is making 75 percent of recoverable offshore oil and gas accessible for drilling, including several lease sales in the Arctic Ocean. This is a highly aggressive leasing plan that should not proceed without an equally aggressive safety plan and one that identifies what important ecological areas should be off limits.

The administration, the industry, and Congress all have a role in making offshore drilling safer. Until they do, America’s coastal communities and marine resources remain vulnerable to another Deepwater Horizon disaster.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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