11.29.10

New Outrage in the Gulf

Could Congress have prevented the BP mess? A report reveals that a law enacted after the Exxon Valdez to avoid future oil spills was deprived of cash by lawmakers.

President Obama’s commission investigating the disastrous BP oil spill quietly issued a draft report on the response last week, and within that document, largely unnoticed, emerged a damning finger pointed directly at Congress for failing to heed the lessons of the Exxon Valdez.

Specifically, in 1990, shortly after Exxon’s 750,000-barrel Alaska catastrophe, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act to funnel up to $28 million in research money annually to pre-empt and respond to possible disasters, as the oil industry “pushed the frontier of deepwater drilling.” This money wouldn’t come from the general coffers, but rather a trust fund, covered by a 5-cent per-barrel tax collected from the oil industry.

But over the ensuing 20 years, the report states, the piggy bank got raided: Congress never appropriated even half the $28 million, shifting the money elsewhere, leaving the the Coast Guard, Minerals Management Services, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency—the four agencies charged by the law to combat the spill threat—with technology that hadn’t been updated much in nearly two decades.

The commission’s report also pointed fingers at private-sector R&D efforts, and found similar fault in terms of dedicating resources to response and clean-up technology. But Congress, in passing the law, had seemingly done the right thing. Year after year, through, it starved that initiative by refusing to appropriate the money called for.

“Since Exxon Valdez, we’ve replaced brick-sized cellphones with iPhones,” says Garret Graves, Governor Bobby Jindal’s chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “Yet little has changed in oil-spill technology.”

The lack of funding became more acute in the years leading up the BP spill. The Coast Guard saw its allocation plummet from $5.6 million in 1993 to $500,000 annually since 2007. NOAA, which played a major role in the Deepwater Horizon response, currently has no funding for oil spill R&D, and the EPA oil-spill response R&D budget has dropped from $2.5 million in 1993 to an average of less than $1 million annually for the last decade.

The commission specifically blames a budget law passed two months after the Oil Pollution Act, and applied budget caps to all agencies and all agency funding. According to the report, “oil-spill research was then forced to compete with other priorities within each agency for budget dollars, even though the research funds were from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, and not the general treasury.”

“The clown car simply unloads a new bunch in D.C. every election cycle.”

“The U.S. has some of the best environmental laws on the books because over the years citizens have demanded protection of our food, water, and air,” says Chasidy Hobbs, who runs the Emerald Coastkeepers, the Gulf region affiliate of Bobby Kennedy Jr.’s Riverkeepers. “However, those laws are useless if they are not enforced and they are impossible to enforce without proper funding.”

Gulf officials won’t go so far as to blame Congress for the disaster. An aide to Congressman Jeff Miller, who represents Northwest Florida, compared it to “an airplane crash—a bunch of things went wrong.” Louisiana’s Graves adds: “No matter what the technology we would have, we still would have had a problem properly deploying it. The best solutions would have been challenged by the logistical and organizational challenges of this disaster.”

But the big question going forward is whether Congress will restore the funding carved out in the 1990 law. The commission report suggests that a mandatory appropriation might be in order—but that’s not any easy sell when you’re battling a $1.3 trillion federal deficit, even if the money has already been dedicated.

“We constantly get small inside looks at how dysfunctional the Beltway has become,” says Mike Papantonio, an outspoken Gulf environmental attorney. “This document is just another indicator that the clown car simply unloads a new bunch in D.C. every election cycle.”

Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.