Oil Spill Commission on Trial

Only in Washington is “safety” a dirty word.

Photo credit: Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard

Let me pose a hypothetical situation:  Three corporations cause one of the biggest environmental disasters in recorded history, and an investigation shows it could have avoided it if they’d been focused on safety. Not only that, but the government could have prevented the disaster if only they hadn’t rubber-stamped the project in the first place.

So, what would the next logical step be?

If you’re like me you probably thought, “Well, obviously we need to get better rules in place and make sure they’re followed.”

This is, of course, what’s going on with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which will continue to impact the Gulf of Mexico for years to come.

BP, Transocean, and Halliburton were found grossly negligent by the federal Oil Spill Commission, which also criticized regulators for failing in their duty to the American public.  But it wasn’t all about pointing fingers: the commission’s report included some common sense recommendations.  Now they face the unenviable task of convincing Congress to act…and this can be like talking to a small child who happens to control your bank account and car keys.

William Reilly (Bush Sr.’s EPA chief) and former Senator Bob Graham are the Oil Spill Commission’s co-chairs, and they trekked up to Capitol Hill last week to make the case for stronger rules and safety first.  Drilling is an important part of our economy, they both said, but we need to do it responsibly, and the system failed us.

I won’t bore you with the details (there’s a reason they show these things on C-SPAN and not EPSN) but suffice to say: One group of Congressmen protested that “regulation” is just code for “job-killing” and generally accused Reilly and Graham of bias and skullduggery.  The other group said better safe than sorry, and vowed to learn the lessons of this disaster.

At one point, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) took issue with the word “systemic,” which was how the commission described problems in the drilling industry.  Are they really systemic, she asked, and not just the fault of a couple of rogue companies?  Also, she added mockingly, are we supposed to believe that good luck was the only thing that prevented a big spill before now?  Reilly paused a moment and then responded. 

“Senator,” he said, “I would answer that question with just one word: Yes.”  We’ve had a lot of near misses, he explained, and it’s “inconceivable” that the problems are confined to one rig or one company.

This from a former Republican cabinet member.

Last year, a pretty good spill response bill was passed by the House but stalled in the Senate.  The elections created big challenges for environmental causes, and oil drilling was no different – BP and the other inmates are still running the asylum and the guards are working double shifts just to save the whole operation from total catastrophe.

“We’ve done what we can do,” Reilly said to the assembled Congressmen and women, “but now it’s over to you.”

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) has introduced legislation that would accomplish many of the goals set by the Commission.  It’s going to take a lot of work to make sure that these reforms are instituted, but you can make a difference by sending an email to your members of Congress, telling them not to buy into the false choice between jobs and safety.  After all, it’s your Gulf, too.