Preventing future oil spills: Congress discusses need for environmental science

This post contributed by Madeline McCurry-Schmidt, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment intern at the Ecological Society of America.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced yesterday morning that exploratory oil drilling off Alaska and deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico will be suspended due to safety concerns. The White House also said it has cancelled a drilling lease off the coast of Virginia. Fearing another spill like the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, officials cited a need for further environmental reviews and evaluations of nation-wide emergency response capabilities.

The Obama Administration’s proposal of more rigorous drilling regulations is just one example of the ways in which the Deepwater Horizon incident is prompting the government to turn to scientists for guidance. In a hearing yesterday morning with the White House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee, Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) said drilling regulators were warned of the dangers oil rigs posed on human safety and the environment prior to the explosion, but he claimed that “those scientists were ignored…They were treated as though they were the crazy paranoids in the attic,” said Moran at the hearing.

The spill highlights the need for funding research on the prevention and clean-up of oil spill disasters, he said. As an example of the lack of scientific backing on the topic, Moran pointed out that one of the oil dispersants called Corexit (which BP used heavily until the Environmental Protection Agency ordered them to scale back applications) degrades into an endocrine disruptor, a chemical that can cause the feminization of organisms. “There are simply too many unknowns,” he said.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar admitted to the committee that the Mineral Management Service, the department responsible for oil rig permits and leasing, had been using 20-year-old environmental reviews to approve permits. While Salazar has been tough on oil companies—he worked to halt Arctic drilling when he first took office—he remains pragmatic regarding environmental concerns versus U.S. energy needs. Instead of turning away from drilling, Salazar spoke about the need to make drilling safer and expand efforts toward solar and wind energy.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) also emphasized that, although the spill is “tragic,” it does not change the U.S. need for oil. “We ought not to treat this as the death-knell of offshore drilling,” he said.

The future of offshore drilling will most likely be driven by economic, political and energy issues, but the members of Congress at the committee hearing this morning appeared to be  receptive to using scientific evidence to improve environmental safety. Rep. David Obey (D-WI), for example, called for less partisan debate and more research into preventing a future disaster: “We will learn more if our ears are open, rather than our mouths,” he said

Photo credit: CameliaTWU

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  1. Everything said here makes sense— we need to do everything we can to make sure that this kind of environmental catastrophe does not happen again. That any energy strategy we have includes an effective plan for worst case scenarios. At the same time as ecologists we need to urge the Obama administration to move with all haste to cease harvesting any species that is in the “line of fire” of this spill, in ANY part of its range. In other words, create immediate refugia to maintain non-impacted populations so that when eventually these habitats are restored, species will have the numbers to repopulate them. I don’t know much about plugging holes in pipes, but I think we have a lot of collective understanding about plugging holes in populations.

  2. I don’t think I have seen this depicted that way before. You actually have cleared this up for me. Thanks!

  3. The creator of that image is not “Austrini.” Please fix that mistake. Thank you very much!

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