Congress Prodded on Offshore-Drilling Safety

GRAND ISLE, LA - JUNE 28: Egrets with oil stained feathers from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico stand on a barrier island in Cat Bay on June 28, 2010 near Grand Isle, Louisiana. According to reports June 28, analysts are saying the economic damage from the oil may not impact the U.S. economy beyond the Gulf rregion. Millions of gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf since the April 20 explosion on the BP leased oil drilling platform. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Jan. 10, 2014, 1:16 p.m.

Three years after an in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the Deep­wa­ter Ho­ri­zon oil spill, mem­bers of a pres­id­en­tial pan­el say Con­gress has failed to ad­opt needed off­shore-drilling safety re­forms and en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tions.

“Un­for­tu­nately Con­gress has really not ac­ted to pro­tect against fu­ture dis­asters,” Frances Ulmer, the chair of the U.S. Arc­tic Re­search Com­mis­sion and a mem­ber of the Na­tion­al Com­mis­sion on the BP Deep­wa­ter Ho­ri­zon Oil Spill and Off­shore Drilling, said in an in­ter­view.

Pres­id­ent Obama es­tab­lished the com­mis­sion in the af­ter­math of the 2010 spill to identi­fy ways to im­prove drilling safety, pre­vent fu­ture ac­ci­dents, and provide for coastal re­cov­ery. In its fi­nal re­port, is­sued in Janu­ary 2011, the com­mis­sion made re­com­mend­a­tions to achieve these ob­ject­ives and called on Con­gress, the ex­ec­ut­ive branch, and the en­ergy in­dustry to carry them out.

“We were asked to come up with a re­port with­in six months of the ac­ci­dent and provide not only a de­scrip­tion of what we felt went wrong but also what we felt could be done bet­ter in the fu­ture,” Ulmer said.

Law­makers have so far im­ple­men­ted only one of the re­com­mend­a­tions out­lined by the com­mis­sion.

In 2012, Con­gress passed the Re­store Act, co­di­fy­ing one of the cent­ral re­forms sug­ges­ted by the pan­el — the re­quire­ment that 80 per­cent of civil pen­al­ties paid out for the spill un­der the Clean Wa­ter Act be set aside for Gulf res­tor­a­tion.

Law­makers in­volved in the bill’s pas­sage say it provides re­lief for af­fected com­munit­ies.

“I am proud to have helped lead the ef­fort to se­cure pas­sage of the Re­store Act,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., one of the au­thors of the Sen­ate ver­sion of the bill. “It will al­low Louisi­ana in par­tic­u­lar to get a jump start on our coastal res­tor­a­tion work.”

But the le­gis­la­tion does not ad­dress drilling safety or set up en­vir­on­ment­al safe­guards in the event of a fu­ture dis­aster.

“The prob­lem is that so many of the re­com­men­ded re­forms have not been put in place,” said Rep. Peter De­Fazio, D-Ore., rank­ing mem­ber of the House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee. “This in­cludes re­mov­ing the li­ab­il­ity cap [for com­pan­ies im­plic­ated in off­shore-drilling ac­ci­dents], ex­tend­ing whistle-blower pro­tec­tions so reg­u­lat­ors have ac­cess to needed in­form­a­tion be­fore an ac­ci­dent oc­curs, and in­creas­ing the cap­ab­il­ity to deal with spills.”

Where Con­gress has been slow to act, fed­er­al agen­cies and in­dustry have picked up the slack.

“In­dustry has en­cour­aged ad­op­tion of best safety prac­tices and the In­teri­or De­part­ment has done a lot to carry out the re­forms, in­clud­ing im­prov­ing the qual­ity of off­shore safety in­spec­tions,” said Bob Gra­ham, a former Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor and sen­at­or from Flor­ida who co­chaired the spill com­mis­sion.

“But even though the ex­ec­ut­ive branch has en­acted a lot of im­port­ant changes, if there were to be a new ad­min­is­tra­tion these changes could be rolled back. That’s why we still need Con­gress to make these changes per­man­ent by en­for­cing them un­der law,” he ad­ded.

Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er, R-Miss., agreed that the job is far from com­plete. “I’m very proud of the Re­store Act but I cer­tainly hope and in­ten­ded for the House and Sen­ate to ex­er­cise di­li­gent over­sight and I wouldn’t be at all sur­prised if we find that there is more that can be done or needs to be done here,” he said. “It’s an on­go­ing pro­cess.”

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