Gulf Citizens Deserve Greater Role in Offshore Oil Oversight

It's not, butthe next Gulf oil disaster will occur, be it another deepwater blowout, a tanker accident, a pipeline rupture, or a refinery incident.
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Like other industrial disasters, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster was caused by a dangerous combination of human error, equipment failure, and complacency in industry and government. It was immediately clear that more rigorous oversight of offshore industry would be necessary. And today, industry and government assure us that they have learned their lessons, have fixed the system, and that all is now well.

But given the July 23 blowout and explosion of Hercules offshore platform #265, the fatal Black Elk offshore rig explosion last November, the continuing 9-year long spill from Taylor Energy's offshore platform in the Gulf, and countless other issues, it is clear that, industry and government assertions aside, oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico continues to be a high-risk business. It's not if, but when the next Gulf oil disaster will occur, be it another deepwater blowout, a tanker accident, a pipeline rupture, or a refinery incident.

And while we can't undo the extensive damage from the Deepwater Horizon, we can and must do everything possible to prevent and better prepare for future oil impacts and disasters. For this, citizens of the Gulf must be empowered and given a legitimate voice in ensuring the safe management of the Gulf of Mexico oil industry.

Even as oil continued to spew from the Macondo wellhead in 2010, citizens across the Gulf urged Congress and the Obama administration to establish a Gulf of Mexico Regional Citizens' Advisory Council (GoM RCAC), modeled upon the successful RCAC formed in Prince William Sound, Alaska after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

In response, the 2010 SHORE Act ("Securing Health for Ocean Resources and Environment") was introduced to (among other things) establish the GoM RCAC. But, the bill was killed by oil industry push back. Then in 2011, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling also endorsed the citizen call for a GoM RCAC. But again, no further government action was taken.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which required the establishment of the Alaska RCACs, expressed the clear finding by the U.S. Congress of the need to improve citizen oversight of the oil industry, as follows:

"The present system of regulation and oversight of [oil operations] in the United States has degenerated into a process of continual mistrust and confrontation. Only when local citizens are involved in the process will the trust develop that is necessary to change the present system from confrontation to consensus...

A mechanism should be established which fosters the long-term partnership of industry, government, and local communities in overseeing compliance with environmental concerns in [oil operations]. Similar programs should eventually be established in other major [oil operations] in the United States."

The RCAC process has worked well in Alaska, and the Gulf of Mexico needs a similar, yet broader, Council.

As distinct from the citizens committee being formed to advise the government Deepwater Horizon restoration program, the scope and focus of the GoM RCAC will instead be much broader, giving Gulf citizens an informed voice in all aspects of oil and gas industry development in the Gulf of Mexico -- exploration, production, pipelines, tankers, terminals, spill prevention, response planning, and environmental monitoring. Both advisory groups are necessary in the Gulf, just as they are in Alaska.

In May 2013, citizen stakeholders from across the Gulf met in New Orleans to revive efforts to establish the GoM RCAC. The citizens organizing group invited all major Gulf oil and gas interests to the meeting -- BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Marine Well Containment Company (which in addition to the above five companies, also includes Anadarko, Apache, BHP Billiton, Hess, and Statoil), the American Petroleum Institute, U.S. Oil & Gas Association, Texas Oil and Gas Association, Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association, and the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Organization. Also invited were representatives of key federal agencies, including the Coast Guard, EPA, NOAA, Department of Interior, and the Army Corps of Engineers. All industry and government invitees declined the invitation.

Undeterred, Gulf citizens have turned again to the U.S. Congress, requesting the introduction and passage of a Gulf of Mexico Regional Citizens' Advisory Act of 2013. As envisioned, the GoM RCAC will enhance engagement, communication, collaboration, and trust among the Gulf oil industry, federal and state governments, and citizen stakeholders potentially impacted by Gulf oil operations. These citizen stakeholders include fishermen, tourism businesses, indigenous peoples, conservation groups, scientists, and local governments and communities.

The GoM RCAC will fund its own research on issues of importance to citizens -- spill prevention and response, dispersants and their alternatives, human health, ecosystem impacts, tanker safety and vessel traffic risks, fisheries protection, and more. Through its research, consultative, and deliberative process, the Council will provide informed advice to industry and government, and citizens will gain a better understanding of the complex realities of offshore oil. Importantly, the Council will operate autonomously, rather than under the direction of government or industry.

The proposed budget for the GoM RCAC is at least $10 million per year, to be funded from the existing federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which currently has a balance over $2.7 billion, and earns about $500 million per year from a nationwide 8 cent-per-barrel fee on oil. As such, the cost for the GoM RCAC will not be borne by federal tax payers, or the Gulf oil industry directly. The Council budget will pay for staff, administration, committees, travel, and research.

A working GoM RCAC will benefit everyone. It will reduce the risk of future pollution incidents and costly litigation, improve spill response preparedness, and build trust and communication with local citizens. Most importantly, it will help to protect the spectacular marine and coastal ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, without doubt one our nation's premier maritime assets.

The Gulf, its citizens, and the nation, cannot afford another Deepwater Horizon disaster. And all the feel-good television commercials money can buy will not help achieve a safer oil production and transportation system. If industry, government, and we the people are serious about making offshore oil as safe as possible in the Gulf, congress needs to adopt the Gulf of Mexico Regional Citizens' Advisory Council Act of 2013, and President Obama needs to sign it into law.

For those who want to help this historic effort, please contact your congressional representatives and senators this month, and urge their support for this long-overdue legislation.

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