A year ago, the American public, government regulators, and Gulf of Mexico families had been lulled into a false sense of security over the safety of offshore drilling and the ability of the oil industry to respond in the event of a severe spill.
After years of systemic complacency and mismanagement by the U.S. government and the oil companies, weeks of poor decision-making on the part of BP and its partners in the ill-fated Macondo oil well, and a few moments of deadly horror one year ago on the Deepwater Horizon, everything known about deepwater drilling changed utterly.
On the first anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, even after countless hearings in Congress, and an investigation by the bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, legislation to improve the safety of deepwater drilling has not been put on President Obama’s desk.
Chris Jones, the brother of Gordon Jones, one of the 11 workers killed the night of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, delivered some of the most powerful and touching testimony I have seen in my 36 years in Congress:
We owe it to the Jones family and others like them to make the oil and gas industry as safe as possible. The BP Oil Spill Commission found that it is four times more deadly to work on an offshore rig in the United States than it is in Europe.
Another spill could happen again. Not from a lack of study, but from an oil industry that still needs massive reform, and from a persistent hubris on the part of fossil fuel boosters.
Safety concerns persist
While the Department of Interior has begun necessary reform of its drilling regulatory agency, and issued new standards for well design and blowout preventer inspections, and some standards for response plans, there are still major aspects of offshore drilling that still need reform:
- Blowout preventers (BOPs): The recent report on the BP BOP by Det Norske Veritas raises questions about design flaws inherent to the machines. I have called for a safety review of all BOPs used in U.S. waters.
- Response plans and technologies: While oil companies are currently required to certify that they can respond to a spill and provide a worst-case scenario analysis to drill new areas, old response plans are still being accepted for up to two years until they must be fully updated. Additionally, while the ad hoc capping stack technology deployed by BP last year eventually worked, the oil industry is now offering that as the main safety device, which could signal an unwillingness to further the design and manufacture of more robust response technologies and plans.
- Expanded drilling, reduced safety: Oil companies and their allies in Congress are pushing to open our East and West Coasts and Alaska to expanded drilling, while reducing safety review.
This follows a year where Republicans blocked any spill safety legislation, including a bill I offered that would have implemented the recommendations of the independent spill commission.
We now know BOPs don’t always work, even when they’re used correctly. We know the oil companies still don’t have full response capabilities, even if they’ve given their top hat a new coat of paint. And we know that the recommendations of the bipartisan spill commission haven’t been put in place.
Yet Republicans in Congress and the oil companies are still pushing for more drilling with less safety. This is the sort of willful ignorance and speed-over-safety mentality that led to the BP spill in the first place.
Moving on their “Oil Above All” agenda, Republicans passed a trio of bills in the Natural Resources Committee last week, and they are expected to head to the House floor for a vote in just a few weeks. Those bills would reduce safety review, say drilling permits are deemed as “approved” after 60 days, regardless of concerns, and open up vast new areas to drilling and use old, shoddy, cookie-cutter environmental review as justification for the new exploration activities.
BP still fighting spill size, fines
After suffering an incredible economic blow, the families living and working in the Gulf deserve better. BP continues to fight the size of the spill, which would affect the fines levied against the company.
In court papers filed earlier this month, BP claimed it should be fined by the day, not by the barrel, for the oil it spilled into the Gulf. By claiming that it was not negligent for the 4.1 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf (a figure BP is also challenging), and by using a different method to calculate fines, BP could reduce their fines under the Clean Water Act from up to $20 billion down to as little as $2.8 million. Republicans have also blocked my legislation that would dedicate fines directly to restoring the Gulf region.
I have a deal for BP. They can use whatever number of days they wish to calculate the fines, as long as the rest of us can add on the proper number of zeros to the end of the amount they pay in fines.
Instead of litigating away their culpability under the law, BP should be mitigating the damage to the people and environment of the Gulf, which continues to be under siege from their spill.
One year later, health concerns in the Gulf remain. We have a moral obligation to continue scientific monitoring and environmental recovery efforts to aid the families in the Gulf and all Americans who enjoy our coasts, our seafood, and our natural heritage.