Oil Spill Panel: Offshore Drilling Needs Improved Safety and Oversight
NRDC President Frances Beinecke was appointed last June by President Obama to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Today the commission delivers its report and recommendations. She discussed them with OnEarth in this exclusive interview.
OE: The commission’s job was to investigate what happened in the Gulf and make recommendations on what to do about it. What did you learn that we didn’t already know?
FB: Although the American Petroleum Institute would have you believe that this disaster was an anomaly, we actually found something very different. We believe that it’s really a systemic problem, that the industry -- although very, very sophisticated -- doesn’t have a series of industry-wide operating standards that are based on the best safety practices that are uniform across the industry. There’s tremendous variation. Some companies, such as Exxon and Shell, would have you believe that they would never have done this. But there are a lot of companies operating out there in the Gulf that are not nearly as big as they are.
So our recommendation was that the entire industry has to be brought up to the highest safety standards that can be realized. The Interior Department has the primary responsibility for ensuring that happens. But the industry itself has to create a series of standards and literally self-police. That’s what the aviation industry does, that’s what the nuclear industry does, and one would have assumed that an industry as sophisticated as the oil and gas industry would do that as well. It turns out, they don’t.
Did you determine why not?
Because it’s a highly competitive industry, a lot of the information is proprietary, so each company designs the well its own way, and they don’t want to share that. Also, operating offshore … it’s a tough environment out there, and there are a lot of very independent thinkers doing their own thing.
We were all kind of blown away by the sophisticated technology. They’re operating 18,000 feet below the seafloor, 20,000 feet down, and what they’re able to do is amazing. I think we all were astounded by that. What was really surprising was that it wasn’t coupled with the best safety practices. And I’m not saying that all the practices are unsafe, or that they don’t have safety practices. What I’m saying is that they didn’t feel an industry-wide drive to have a uniform set of standards that are constantly improving, that are constantly evaluated, that are being audited time and time again.
The industry might argue that what you’re asking is too difficult or would drive up fuel costs.
The aviation industry does it -- they’ve been doing it for decades. And why is that? Because the rest of us step on planes all the time, and we want to know that this industry is operating to the highest levels of safety. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have passengers. The nuclear industry did it after Three Mile Island. They got together and they realized that there might not be a nuclear industry if they didn’t figure this one out, and they created an independent institute that does set these very high standards and reports their findings to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In both the UK and in Norway, offshore oil and gas operations are managed according to this kind of risk-assessment practice that we’re recommending. So many of the same companies are already doing it in other countries -- why not here? Isn’t this the United States of America? We should have the highest standards of safety. We should be setting the international standard. And it turns out, we’re not.
Eleven people died. That should never happen again. And it’s amazing that over 100 people got off the rig safely. This is a very sophisticated industry, and there’s no reason that they cannot do what we are asking. It’s not complicated, but it requires commitment.
So is the commission largely holding BP and the industry responsible for what happened, or did government play a role, as well?
The Interior Department has a responsibility. They hold these resources in the public trust -- not only the oil and gas resources, but our shores, the ocean. All the productivity of the ocean is a public resource. And the public should be confident that their government, the federal government, the Department of the Interior, has the ability to ensure that that public trust is fully met and has the resources in place to do the job.
What about the constant concerns you hear about the expanding size of government and that “regulation kills jobs?”
I have an answer to that. In my view, the oil and gas industry ought to be the strongest proponents for these new recommendations that the commission is making, and the reason is that they want certainty. They want to be out there in the Gulf. They want their permits to be reviewed and processed. The best way for that to happen is to get the resources into the Interior Department that it needs, to allow them to have the technical capacity and staffing to actually do the kind of reviews that the public expects. I’ve said to many companies in commission meetings: “You ought to be the strongest proponents of this. If you want to get back to work in the Gulf, you should want this to happen, because if this doesn’t happen, things are going to slow to a crawl.”
What about Alaska, which is one of the next areas where the industry is pushing to drill offshore? Are there special concerns there?
Alaska has its own great complexities. You’re operating, particularly in the Arctic, in areas that are dark a good deal of the year, they’re covered with fog, they have terrible storms, and they’re covered with ice. I mean, can you imagine? All the response technology that we have didn’t seem to work effectively in the Gulf, so how could it possibly work effectively in the Arctic? There’s a big response gap in the Arctic, and we recommend that there be research and development to figure out how to close that. We also don’t know as much about what’s happening in the Arctic environment -- where the fish stocks are, where the migratory paths of the marine mammals are, what the basic ecological resources of those proposed leasing areas are. So there’s a big research gap that we recommend be closed as well. I think until you basically address those two issues, it’s very hard for the Interior Department to make decisions that would be necessary to allow drilling to go forward there.
There was some controversy when President Obama first appointed you to the commission because you were an “environmental advocate” and not an industry expert.
First of all, the Deepwater Horizon spill was a colossal environmental disaster. Nearly five million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. To have an environmental perspective on the commission was very important. Mine wasn’t the only perspective there, and I took it as my assignment to be both very concerned about the environment and to really look at how can we assure that a resource as rich as the Gulf of Mexico is managed so that its productivity is not impaired over the long term, because the economy and the environment there are very integrated. Yes, there are very high-paying jobs in the oil and gas industry, but there are also thousands of people who work in fisheries, people who depend on tourism, and in this instance, one was in direct conflict with the other two. What we tried to do in the commission report is recommend practices that would ensure that these three can operate in harmony.
Did the commission go beyond this particular disaster and try to uncover some of the larger causes that led us to this point?
Something the commission report recognizes is that in this country, we’re addicted to oil. We have an incredible oil appetite. We have a huge transportation sector that uses oil each and every day. That’s why we’re drilling 5,000 to 10,000 feet offshore. That’s why we’re importing a tremendous amount of oil from the tar sands in Canada, which is an incredibly egregious practice. That’s why we’re drilling all along the Rocky Mountain front. That’s why there’s interest in going offshore Alaska. As long as we keep the driving addiction and the oil addiction that we have in this country, we will be jeopardizing really fertile, fragile ecosystems all around the country -- onshore and offshore.
We have to get to the next stage. So our aim in the commission was to make a recommendation that we really do need a much more thoughtful energy plan that reduces that demand for oil, by looking at alternatives like hybrids and electric cars and much more public transportation.
Certainly some people in the environmental community hoped that the commission would recommend an end to offshore drilling …
Well, the goal of the commission was to reach a consensus, and we decided that it’s up to the federal government to decide, using the tools that we recommend putting in place, where drilling should or should not occur, rather than having us say, “It should happen here or not happen here.”
You visited the Gulf very early during the disaster, even before being appointed to the commission, and were very concerned about the larger impact on the region. Do your recommendations address the suffering and uncertainty that’s still being felt by people in the Gulf?
The commission felt strongly that this is an area that’s been impacted by oil and gas drilling, by dredging, by hurricanes, by a whole host of things. Yet it’s an incredibly productive marine environment in spite of all that. So what can you do to enhance the resilience of the Gulf and enhance restoration? And there are a lot of restoration discussions going on in the Gulf. So we make a series of recommendations in that area. Because you can’t forget that this is an area that has really been devastated and continues to be. It’s January, many months after the spill, but these communities are still experiencing economic damage, environmental damage, and psychological stress. So I’m hopeful that the elected officials from the Gulf will see that the report has value to get their communities back on their feet and therefore take to heart the recommendations and use them to get further action.
These are people and communities with a history and a richness that was a privilege to get to see. I don’t know if I would otherwise have been out with oystermen or talking to Vietnamese shrimpers or walking along the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The rest of the country may have forgotten about this, but there are thousands of people who continue to be affected on a day-to-day basis. The human dimension of this is something that people don’t think about, because they sort of think that it’s about the environment versus the industry or whatever. That isn’t what it’s about. It’s about people’s lives being completely disrupted -- even moreso in some respects than after Katrina. I think that’s hard for the rest of the country to appreciate. The individual stress, the stress in families, among couples with children -- it was enormous. And it continues to be enormous. I really was troubled by that, because that just should not happen.
In our interview last summer, you discussed what would make the commission’s findings more than just another report on a shelf. In the interim, we’ve had an election and major power shift in Washington. Does that new political reality change anything?
Well, there are a great deal of recommendations in the report that can be addressed administratively. There are a lot of recommendations about what the Interior Department has to do, what the Environmental Protection Agency should do, what the Coast Guard should do. They have the authority to do that. They may not have the resources do it -- that’s a big issue -- but they do have the authority. So my hope, first and foremost, is that the executive branch will take it very seriously and take those actions which they can take. Then there are a series of recommendations that do require Congress, and I’m hoping that there will be some leaders in Congress who will see the value in taking those. Certainly organizations like NRDC and others will be working very hard to see that happen.