I have just returned from Louisiana where I saw firsthand the devastating impacts of the Gulf oil disaster. I saw oil in the marshes, on the beaches and in the water. I saw an oiled pelican unable to fly being captured and taken to a rescue center; I saw dead fish floating in the water; I saw marsh grass and black mangroves coated with oil; I saw a mother and baby dolphin swimming innocently through waters laced with oily sheen.
I spoke with people who were out of work -- whose families have been commercial fishing for generations, charter boat captains whose businesses had dried up. I met with local conservation groups doing their best to ensure that the environmental damages from this horrific incident are fully assessed and that BP is made to pay in the full for the environmental damage it has caused.
I have worked for decades to protect our nation’s valuable coastal and ocean resources from a variety of threats—from overfishing to coastal pollution to ocean acidification, and this was a heartbreaking trip. For nearly 15 years, I worked to prevent oil spills such as this from occurring, including bringing legal challenges on behalf of NRDC to the first two five year offshore leasing programs and to lease sales of millions of acres proposed off the coast of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, California and Alaska. For example, in the 1980’s, NRDC, along with others, challenged offshore lease sales in Bristol Bay, Alaska—an area home to some of the greatest salmon runs in the world and an area now protected from oil drilling (at least until 2017) -- and in the St. George Basin in the Bering Sea—an area frequented by endangered whales and supporting one of our nation’s most productive fisheries—because we believed that the impacts of a worst case scenario oil spill needed to be fully assessed before oil leases were issued. Then, as in the Gulf, the government and the oil companies argued that the risks from such a spill were so remote that only superficial consideration or no consideration at all was necessary. The oil industry took it as a point of pride that they could drill anywhere safely, no matter how vulnerable or ecologically valuable the area.
What we feared then has tragically come to pass now in the Gulf. The pernicious invasion of oil onto the shores and into the waters of the Gulf dramatically underscores the need for caution and careful environmental analysis before leasing and drilling decisions are made. There need to be major revisions and strengthening of the law, regulations and oversight of offshore drilling. President Obama is right to impose a 6 month moratorium on deepwater offshore drilling until the independent commission that is investigating the BP oil disaster finds out why this disaster happened and what must be done to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
Corrective action must be taken to ensure that companies have in place:
1) “fail-safe” systems that in fact work;
2) the capability to quickly stop the flow of oil should these systems fail, as they did here; and
3) both the technology and capacity to contain and clean up a worst case oil spill such as this.
These and other requirements need to be put in place so that as long as we have oil drilling offshore, an oil disaster like this never happens again.
This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.