Defining spill’s accountability

When the BP Deepwater Horizon first sank to the sea floor engulfed in flames we were told 1,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. Quickly, that estimate jumped to 5,000. Suddenly, estimates were hiked to 12,000, then 20,000 and now, perhaps, as much as 60,000 barrels a day. The latest news is that when BP was telling the country that 5,000 barrels of oil were leaking each day from their broken well, their internal worst-case estimate was 100,000 barrels. What should we believe? If we can’t trust BP to tell us how much oil is spewing into the water, how can we trust that they will honor their responsibilities and pay legitimate claims for damages in the Gulf region and elsewhere, both economic and environmental?

Earlier this month, as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Water and Wildlife Subcommittee, I led a delegation of fellow senators to the Gulf to see the damage firsthand. You truly cannot comprehend the scale of the disaster until you see it with your own eyes. Oil was everywhere. 

Our highest priority must be to stop the oil flow. Fishermen and other hardworking Americans we met are seeing their jobs and way of life threatened every day this spill continues. Oil is killing marine wildlife, too, destroying some of America’s most important commercial fisheries and fouling fragile barrier islands, crucial wetlands and previously pristine beaches along the Gulf Coast.  

We must work aggressively and effectively to contain and clean up the oil. I commend the president for the size of the government’s response and for his attempts to assert control over BP. But I think more can be done. We should have performance standards for BP’s efforts to stop the flow of oil and for their contractors’ cleanup efforts on shore. We should demand daily reports on their progress.

I also worry that we don’t have the best organizational structure in place to rapidly respond to oil as it hits the shore. I saw evidence of that on my trip. I know that the on-scene coordinator, Admiral James A. Watson, is already instituting changes. We will continue to work with the administration to make sure there are federal experts on the ground, throughout the Gulf Coast region, with the authority and expertise to make quick decisions to order response actions.  

I agree with the president that every day oil continues to spill into the Gulf of Mexico is a reminder of our addiction to fossil fuels and the risks this dependence has on our economy, our security and our environment. America needs a new energy policy.

Oil workers who sit idle as we try to figure out what went wrong on the BP Deepwater Horizon could be hard at work in a clean energy economy. We need an energy policy that will help create inherently domestic American jobs, eliminate our daily billion-dollar giveaway to oil-producing countries around the world that don’t agree with our way of life, and be kinder to our environment by protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink.

As we work toward that cleaner and safer future, we realize that domestic drilling for oil and gas will not end any time soon. But we need to fix the rules and the agencies tasked with overseeing offshore drilling. Especially now that the risks involved in offshore drilling are so clear, there should be no expansion of drilling activity into new, environmentally sensitive areas of this country, including the mid-Atlantic coast.  

Our work to clean-up and restore of the Gulf Coast will take a long time. If we are going to get it right and if we are going to hold BP and its partners accountable, then we need to have an accurate assessment of the damage. That has to start now because in the midst too much misinformation, there are questions that must be answered. How do we measure the full cost of the damage that is being done, and how do we know those measurements will be accurate? How do we calculate a bill for the long-term effects of this oil spill on the environment that will struggle for years to recover from what is clearly the largest oil spill in U.S. history?  

The Water and Wildlife Subcommittee will be holding a series of hearings, starting next month, on this spill. We first will look at the environmental impacts of this spill, the efforts to assess that damage, and plans to restore these valuable ecosystems.

Our first priority is to stop the leak and restore the Gulf Coast to its former glory, but to get that job done we’ve got to know how big that leak is, where all the oil is going and what it will take to clean it up.

Sen. Cardin is the junior senator from Maryland, elected in 2006. Prior to that, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives.