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BP Gulf Coast Catastrophe One Year Later -- Have We Learned Anything?

21 Apr 2011  |   Mike Palamuso

Tags: Clean Energy, Clean Water

Guest blog from LCV Law Clerk Tomi Vest:

One year ago, the worst oil spill in the nation's history began in the Gulf of Mexico when BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded killing eleven crew members and injuring seventeen others. The well took nearly three months to cap and released more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

What have we learned one year later? We know, as detailed by the National Commission that examined the tragedy, that BP, Halliburton and Transocean all made a series of identifiable mistakes that caused the catastrophe; mistakes that the Commission concluded, "reveal such systematic failures in risk management that place in doubt the safety and culture of the entire industry." We also know that many members of Congress -- having failed to act in response-- are clearly more beholden to the gas & oil industry than was even thought before and are seemingly incapable of showing leadership at a time that cried out for it.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has taken commendable steps to reform offshore drilling, including by replacing the troubled Minerals Management Service with the newly-created Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE). The new agency is attempting to do the right thing by imposing more rigorous safety standards on an industry vehemently opposed to even the most commonsense regulation. But to achieve a sustained culture of safety that protects our workers, coastal businesses, and coastal environments, legislation is badly needed. BOEMRE's safety reforms are not yet codified in law, meaning a future administration may bow to industry pressure to weaken standards. Oil companies continue to be incentivized to under-invest in safety due to a law that caps their liability at the absurdly low figure of $75 million in the event of a spill. And there currently is no law requiring that Clean Water Act fines for oil spills be returned to restore the coasts and marine environments damaged by that particular spill, meaning BP's Clean Water Act penalties will not necessarily go to restoring the battered Gulf Coast.

On this day when we pause to reflect on the lives that were lost unnecessarily and the environmental disaster that will have impact for years to come, we must resolve to learn from it. Industries, when asked to regulate themselves, will fall short of the safety and environmental standards that we as a nation should expect. When regulatory agencies and industry get too close, appropriate oversight becomes impossible. That is why, now more than ever, Congress needs to act to address the serious problems related to offshore drilling that the BP spill revealed. To ignore the lessons of the spill is to invite a repeat of last year's tragedy.

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