Foul waters, hard lessons from BP oil spill


(CNN) – Four weeks after the catastrophic blowout that killed 11 workers and gushed millions of barrels of toxic crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico last spring, President Obama set up an independent commission to determine what went wrong and what we must do to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

We on the commission found that this disaster was both foreseeable and avoidable. The industry failed to manage the risk of an inherently dangerous operation. Our government failed to adequately protect us from those risks. And the people we rely on to enforce our protections lacked the resources they needed to do the job.

In short, we’ve learned as a nation that we must protect our oceans, our coastal communities and the millions of Americans who depend on healthy waters, shores and wetlands for their livelihood and way of life.

We’ve listened to these people. We’ve heard their concerns. Now it’s our job, as members of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster and Offshore Drilling, to make sure we learn the lessons that have come at such a high cost.

We can’t prevent, absolutely, another oil spill. As long as we rely on offshore oil and gas production, though, we must do everything we possibly can to minimize the risk to workers, habitat and wildlife. The Gulf of Mexico is a national treasure, and we need to start treating it like one.

For too long we’ve treated this region as a place apart, a place to pay the price and bear the risk of our costly dependence on oil. But the Gulf of Mexico is not a national sacrifice zone. It is a unique natural resource that provides Americans everywhere with food, energy and jobs that are essential to the prosperity, security and welfare of the nation.

We need, all of us, a healthy Gulf. We must strike the right balance between energy production and the need to protect our workers, our oceans and all they support.

Our oceans are the very foundation of life. That’s why the White House adopted a National Ocean Policy last July. It calls on us, as a nation, to:

  • protect and restore ocean health and marine life;
  • strengthen the resiliency of our waters, coasts and coastal communities;
  • and invest in the research we need to inform our actions and decisions by sound science and a clear understanding of the ways we put our oceans and people at risk.

These goals need to be part and parcel of our approach to offshore drilling. They need to be integrated into industry practices. They need to be reflected in our laws. And they need to be part of our collective response to this catastrophic oil spill.

The recommendations we’ve made will go a long way to help, if all do their parts.

Our oil and gas industry is the best in the world at producing energy from deep water wells. Now it must become just as good at protecting workers and the environment.

That means putting safety first. It means investing in equipment, research and training that make the industry better at preventing blowouts, stopping them when they happen, and containing and cleaning up oil from our waters and shores. That is the least we must require of any company that seeks to profit from our nation’s resources.

The Congress has a responsibility to pass legislation to strengthen the safeguards we need to protect our workers, oceans and coastal communities.

More than 14 million Americans live along the Gulf of Mexico. They have paid a grievous price for this disaster. Thousands were thrown out of work. Many have lost their homes.

We owe it to these people, and to future generations, to bring our safeguards up to date with the risks we face when we drill in increasingly deeper waters.

The administration must ensure that the people we charge with enforcing these safeguards have the authority, the resources, the training and the support they need to do their jobs. We cannot tolerate second-best in this area. We cannot compromise their mission with dual roles and competing tasks. The potential for another catastrophe is just too great; the stakes are just too high.

Finally, this commission has recognized that we need a national energy policy that will begin to break our addiction to oil and move us toward cleaner, safer, more sustainable sources of power and fuel.

Developing that policy was not our job. But unless and until we do so, as a nation, we will continue to put our future at risk. We can do better, the commission believes, and the time to begin is now.

Eight months have passed since the BP blowout, and still the damage and devastation continue. Tar balls continue to wash up along Gulf shores. Oil sheen trails in the wake of fishing boats. Wetlands marsh grass remains dying and fouled. Toxic crude lies offshore in deep water and in fine silts and sands onshore.

This is where we find ourselves. We must move ahead from here.

One of the abiding strengths of our country is our ability to learn from our mistakes. The people of the Gulf of Mexico, Americans everywhere, have paid a high price to learn the hard lessons of this epic debacle at sea. Now we must use what we’ve learned to power the action we need to change.

That is the way to prevent future disasters and to protect our oceans and shores. And that is how we honor the lives of those we lost that night last spring aboard the Deepwater Horizon.

Editor’s note: Frances Beinecke is one of seven commissioners serving on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. She is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frances Beinecke.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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