Let's Tell Big Oil: You Break It, You Buy It

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker leaked 11 million gallons of oil into Alaskan waters. The spill took over the American imagination - no one thought a single accident would cause so much ecological damage. It was, for lack of a better term, our environmental Chernobyl. Arctic habitats for birds and marine life quickly became a wasteland.

The lawsuits lasted for nearly two decades. Ultimately, the Supreme Court found a punitive damages judgment of $5 billion against Exxon excessive, and the company was asked to pay very little for the economic pain the spill had caused. Exxon recouped most of its cleanup and legal costs thanks to insurance policies. For the world's oil companies it was a signal that if disaster strikes, toughing it out is preferable to paying your fair share.

That cannot happen again with the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. It's time we brought corporate liability law in line with the scope of this catastrophe. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Horizon has already leaked between 17 and 39 million gallons. It has officially eclipsed the Exxon Valdez.

This spill will impact the Gulf region, and the nation, for decades to come. There's no question that BP is to blame. There's also no question that when it comes to oil rig safety, we've lived in blissful ignorance long enough. Oil rigs can no longer be presumed safe and sound, either structurally or environmentally.

Indeed, this spill is only a surprise to those who weren't paying attention. On Feb. 24, before Horizon exploded, I wrote a letter to recently departed Minerals Management Service (MMS) Director Elizabeth Birnbaum calling for an MMS investigation of why BP was allegedly allowed to operate a separate rig known as Atlantis, also in the Gulf of Mexico, without 90 percent of its subsea construction documents approved by an engineer. A whistleblower brought his concerns to BP's and MMS' attention last year, but nothing was done. Why should it take an act of Congress and a major environmental emergency to get MMS to investigate credible allegations of mismanagement at one of the world's largest oil rigs?

This was not a one-time slipup - the entire MMS culture of cheerleading for the drilling industry has to be recognized for what it is, and it needs to end. MMS is currently conducting its investigation of Atlantis' safety, but has recently said it will miss its original deadline of May 31 to issue its report. I eagerly await the agency's findings. But whatever MMS concludes regarding Atlantis, we already know much of what we need to know: oil drilling is about large profits, and MMS allowed industry to pursue those profits at any cost. This is not just hyperbole. Eleven people died on Deepwater Horizon. We're told that no one could have predicted this, and no one is to blame. I don't believe that, and neither do the American people. Neither should Congress.

BP will pay for the Gulf cleanup, which some experts estimate could cost as much as $14 billion. The effort will take years. But the damage done extends far beyond the environment. Fisherman cannot fish. Tourists are not visiting the hotels or beaches. Restaurants and other small businesses are losing customers left and right, and the tide of oil shows no signs of stopping. The economic life of the Gulf has been devastated. Yet the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 limits the liability of parties responsible for offshore oil spills to cleanup costs, plus $75 million in economic damages. $75 million will not even scratch the surface of the long-term economic damages that Horizon has wrought.

That's why, last week, I introduced HR 5355. The "no cap" bill would completely eliminate the arbitrary $75 million liability cap, because the best way to ensure responsible behavior is to make corporations responsible for their actions. They benefit when things are going well, so why should taxpayers take the hit when things go badly? A single dollar of public money spent to clean up after BP is one dollar too many. When the bottom line is at stake, industry will change its behavior for the better. Any cap we place on economic compensation is inherently arbitrary, so let's not have one.

Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in revenue will be lost as a result of BP's careless actions. Livelihoods will be put on hold or simply destroyed. Under current law, BP will only have to pay for a fraction of the damage -- yet the company is still blocking journalist access to affected beaches for fear of exposure. It's time to demand greater responsibility and accountability from the oil industry. Only when these multi-billion dollar companies are forced to bear the full costs of their actions will they take safety seriously. Let's send a simple, responsible message to Big Oil: "You break it, you buy it."