THE OPINION PAGES
After the Spill
Published: October 24, 2010
The six-month anniversary of the BP oil spill passed quietly last week. The well has been capped, and commerce in the Gulf of Mexico is slowly reviving. Much important work still lies ahead — figuring out how much oil is still out there, cleaning it up, measuring the damage to marine life, compensating victims. And Congress needs to pass an oil-spill bill that will reduce the chances of another drilling debacle.
The House has passed a bill that would tighten environmental safeguards, require companies to furnish detailed response plans before receiving drilling permits, and reorganize the government to prevent the conflicts of interest that helped lead to the BP spill. When it returns after the election, the Senate must do the same.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has already issued useful new rules. But these are administrative changes that could be rolled back by another administration. Congress can provide the force of law. The Senate could also improve on the House bill in one important respect by ensuring a robust source of funds to rebuild an ecosystem that was already in deep trouble before the spill.
The White House recommended earmarking a big chunk of BP’s civil and criminal penalties under the Clean Water Act — which could be as much as $20 billion — for restoration of coastal wetlands and barrier islands eroded by industrial development and the leveeing of the Mississippi River. Under current law penalties would go to a cleanup fund for future spills and general revenue.
Senate action has been held up by a dispute over whether to eliminate the $75 million liability cap for economic damages. (BP has agreed to pay all damage claims.) Some senators argue that lifting the cap would drive smaller companies out of the drilling business. Others say the potential costs of another spill are so large that only deep-pocketed companies should be allowed to drill.
Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, suggests the creation of an insurance fund, underwritten by all companies, to pay costs up to $10 billion, with companies large or small responsible for anything above that. The bottom line must be that industry, not the public, pays for its mistakes. The Senate has done virtually nothing on climate change. If it fails to act on the spill, it will only compound that shame — and the damage to the country.