The Skywriter

The best oil spill cleanup tool: political will

20
May

The best oil spill cleanup tool: political will

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Nick Santos was formerly a policy fellow with 1Sky and now heads up consumer information group The Environmental Consumer in California. The author's opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the 1Sky campaign.-- Luis

We're a month into the biggest oil spill in decades with no signs ahead of true abatement, cleanup, or even admission of guilt from the involved parties. This spill involves three main categories of problems to solve -- technological, social, and governmental -- in order to clean up this mess and prevent future ones like it.

The technological problem currently captures most of the attention as efforts like the failed containment dome, the "junk shot", the cleanup dream team, and even centrifuges are attempted or advocated. Meanwhile, BP has been championing its success with the Riser Insertion Tube which is currently siphoning off 2,000 gallons a day (of a low end estimate of 200,000). The technological problem only captures the short term difficulties though. Unlike the technological problem, we may be solving the social problems of this spill for decades. There is talk of an entire generation of industry being lost on the Gulf Coast with around 100,000 jobs at risk from this spill.

These social problems naturally feed directly into the governmental problem of how to protect current and future citizens. There is talk of programs to address the problems created by this mess, but what is really needed is prevention of future "accidents." Only days before the spill, President Obama had proposed opening the continental shelf to drilling for the first time in decades. He has since backed down from that stance. Similarly, governors such as Charlie Crist (I-FL) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) who were formerly in favor of offshore drilling in their states are using this spill as an opportunity to publicly change their minds. We're also seeing more moves by senators of coastal states to limit or prohibit drilling off their shores. This is the good news in government right now, but we must hope these commitments last even once the public's attention is turned from the current spill.

The bad news in government also comes from the Senate where Republicans, led by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK - of Dirty Air Act fame) and James Inhofe (R-OK) are blocking an increase in the liability limit for oil companies when a spill occurs. Senator Inhofe claims, outrageously, that an increase in the liability cap from the current, paltry $75 million dollars per incident, to $10 billion dollars (which Majority Leader Harry Reid calls "inadequate"), "singles out BP" and "shuts out independent producers."

I call shenanigans. I understand that a primary tenet of the Republican (and Democratic) platform is to protect business, but that must be bound by those businesses being legitimate. Legitimate business practices do not include creating public hazards, endangering jobs, and creating ecological disasters that will last for decades. BP has handled this mess like the negligent, shady business it is: faulting others, cutting corners, and obfuscating its role. Yet they remain protected by a liability cap of only $75 million dollars. In contrast, if an individual were to kill 11 people, send massive debris into the ocean, dump toxic chemicals into the ocean, and endanger the jobs of thousands of people, they would be subject to bankrupting fines and significant prison terms. BP gets off easier because it has senators on its side. That's just wrong.

I once had a teacher who would tell students that saying sorry "is a commitment to change." BP is acting like it is saying sorry in all of its PR, but is passing the buck and making no commitment behind the scenes. A truly sorry BP would admit guilt and ask the other companies to join them in that admission. A truly sorry BP would request an audit of all of its existing rigs and pay for any repairs necessary. A truly sorry BP would ask senators to raise the liability cap as high as they deemed necessary, retroactive to before this spill began. A truly sorry BP would then put more money than the liability cap into a fund managed by a third party so that Gulf Coast residents can obtain legitimate claims related to their economic, cultural and environmental quality. A truly sorry BP would then promise to underwrite all government cleanup efforts and pledge to monitor and clean up any significant amount of oil in the ocean resulting from their spill.

If BP did these things, I might believe that they won't just turn their back on the country and the spill the moment they are out of the public eye. This strategy won't bankrupt BP -- it'll merely set their profits back a bit, and it's better than they deserve.

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