Has Congress already forgotten our last oil spill disaster?

Has Congress already forgotten our last oil spill disaster?
© Getty

Memories seem remarkably short these days.

Those promoting massive, deficit-busting tax cuts as engines of explosive economic growth seem to have forgotten the 1990s boom that followed substantial tax increases in 1993 as well as the more recent recovery that actually gathered steam after the large upper-income tax increases of 2013.

Those demanding tough military action against North Korea seem to forget the dangers that caused their predecessors to back away from the brink. And those foreseeing new “permanent” political majorities — be they Karl Rove, David Axelrod, or Steve Bannon — seem to forget how quickly shiny new administrations become tarnished in voters’ eyes.

In the same way, the proposed SECURE American Energy Act (H.R. 4239), expected to come to the House floor this week, represents a remarkable case of institutional amnesia. The oil and gas industry, whose policy agenda it effectively parrots, has no incentive to remember the various disasters that showed us the need for measured environmental protections. We, however, should remember.

We should, for example, remember the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that dumped over 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. This bill does not remember, nullifying the modest safety standards for Arctic drilling that the oil and gas industry agreed upon with the Interior Department in the wake of that environmental and economic calamity. Not only do these safeguards protect the environment and the livelihoods of native communities that depend on the sea, they also prevent the needless waste of American oil.

We also must not forget how vulnerable migratory birds are to careless industry practices. BP killed more than a million birds in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Sadly, the bill eliminates oil and gas companies’ responsibility for covering oil waste pools, which trap and drown birds, or for insulating power lines that electrocute owls, hawks, waterfowl, songbirds, and others.

H.R. 4239 also would transfer to states the authority to authorize oil and gas drilling on public lands. It would not, however, provide states with any resources to perform this work, which currently costs the Bureau of Land Management well over $100 million a year. This forgets that, even in good economic times, states often have budget crises that prevent them from staffing up to address the complicated scientific and engineering questions permitting raises.

Rubber-stamping whatever industry wants, however, is quite inexpensive. The legislation also forgets that, for all the influence corporate campaign money has on the federal level, it can be an almost irresistible force at the state level, all but ensuring that the oil and gas lobby will get whatever permits it desires if power shifts to the states.

Further, the legislation seems to forget that the oil and gas companies already have vast leased properties of which they are exploiting only a small fraction. These new leases thus do not respond to any plausible current need. The legislation’s only real effect would be to tie the hands of future Congresses that might wish to reassert the balance between extractive, other economic, recreational, and environmental interests that historically has guided our natural resources policy.

Indeed, in some places the H.R. 4239 seems to regard memory as a bad thing. The National Marine Fisheries Service has protected species of dolphins, whales, sea lions, and seals, many already endangered, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for decades. This has allowed the Service to develop considerable expertise, allowing it to balance these animals’ needs with industry’s desires. The legislation would strip the Service of jurisdiction.

Instead, the Interior Department, already straining under a lack of resources, would approve permits under the Act for drilling activities that threaten species the Department has never managed. And as if that did not give oil and gas companies enough leverage, the bill also would gut longstanding standards for issuing permits. It would fast-track approval for seismic airgun blasting, which can deafen and kill endangered species like the right whale.

More broadly, this legislation seems to forget the basic nature of oil and gas production: Once it is extracted from the ground and sold, it is gone forever. When we develop new industries or educational institutions, we are investing in the future because those things can go on forever. Opening more public lands to extraction is just the opposite: sacrificing resources we may need in the future to serve the gluttonous present.

We do not need this oil and gas now, but we might at some point in the future. If we want our children and grandchildren to remember us fondly, we should leave the resources they may need in the ground, not cave in to short-sighted industry demands.  

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.