Defenders View: Lessons from the Gulf of Mexico Disaster

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© Krista Schlyer

© Krista Schlyer

If you were driving a car toward a cliff, would you step on the gas pedal or hit the brakes? Would you try to stop the car or keep driving, thinking that any injury you sustained would be patched up in the hospital later?

Any rational person would hit the brakes. And yet, in the wake of the Gulf oil disaster, some politicians want to keep on driving. They say that accidents are inevitable and we can repair the damage resulting from the deluge of oil, as if that were certain (which it is not), and as though offshore drilling is the only option.

The reality is that the damage to people and wildlife caused by massive discharges of oil into the environment can never be fully repaired—or compensated. The waters and beaches of Alaska’s Prince William Sound are still contaminated by oil from the Exxon Valdez, more than two decades after the ship wrecked. The fishermen whose livelihoods were lost as a result of that disaster had to fight Exxon all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before they saw a dime of compensation. Indeed, more than 4,000 claimants died before they received any money.

In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons of oil, Congress adopted the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Under this law, a company causing an oil spill is liable for the costs of cleaning it up, as well as for damages to natural resources, public services, property and livelihoods. This law limits the maximum tab for damages at only $75 million. With estimates of damages from BP’s Gulf oil well blowout running to tens of billions of dollars at least, the compensation provided under this law will be grossly inadequate.

And that’s not even considering that in terms of ecological impact, the damages will be so severe that they can never be undone. How can some of the world’s most productive wetland ecosystems ever be replaced? How can we repair the loss of birds such as the brown pelican? What is the proper compensation for the death of endangered sea turtles? Or the damage to the Gulf ecosystem’s ability to help provide clean air and clean water, or nurseries for the marine life that is the basis of our seafood industry? Such losses are truly incalculable.

Past oil disasters led to major changes in our environmental laws, but these laws have not only failed to prevent further problems in conventional drilling, they did not fully anticipate the challenges posed by drilling deeper into the Earth under ever deeper waters. Several bills have been introduced in Congress in response to the Gulf oil disaster. But if all we do is continue to apply bandages after the fact, rather than addressing the cause of the injury, we are doomed to continue repeating the same mistakes with the same disastrous consequences.

President Obama made a good start when, in the wake of the Gulf oil disaster, he cancelled plans for exploratory oil drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska, home to threatened polar bears. The president also declared a moratorium on any new deepwater oil development in the Gulf of Mexico, and cancelled plans to sell offshore oil leases off the coast of Virginia. Each of these steps should be made permanent. And instead of including expanded oil drilling as a political sweetener for climate change legislation, President Obama and Congress should enact comprehensive climate change legislation that caps greenhouse gas emissions and helps end our dependence on fossil fuels.  

The Gulf oil disaster offers us the opportunity to show that we can learn from the many past disasters resulting from offshore oil development, and to demonstrate our determination to not repeat the mistake of thinking we can avert future oil disasters. If we again let this opportunity slip from our grasp, it will only be a matter of time until we are once more facing an oil-caused environmental and human catastrophe. But if we seize the moment to end further offshore oil development, future generations will thank us.  

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