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The Latest Oil Platform Accident Is a Grim Reminder of Our Energy Challenges

Ironically, the latest oil rig explosion occurred as Louisiana's governor, along with other state and local officials, were calling on President Obama to lift the moratorium on deepwater drilling that he imposed three months ago.
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My visit to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana this week turned out to be even more interesting than I had expected. We went on this trip to investigate the progress of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup and the ongoing claims process for those affected by the disaster. However, shortly after the Army Black Hawk helicopter touched down in Grand Isle, Louisiana, right on the Gulf of Mexico, we were greeted by news of an oil platform explosion some 135 miles or so to the southwest of us out in the Gulf. Thirteen men went over the side of the platform into the water following the explosion. Fortunately, all of them survived, apparently without serious injury. They were luckier than the eleven men who perished during the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig more than four months ago.

While this latest oil platform fire raged, back at the site of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy another important step in permanently plugging the well was just beginning. Surface support ships and deepwater submersibles were moving into position to remove that well's malfunctioning blowout preventer and prepare it for a new, functioning blowout preventer to be installed the next day.

Once that step was completed, work would continue on the relief wells that - when finished - would allow the "bottom kill" to proceed by September 20, effectively driving a stake through the heart of the well that has caused so much heartache and set off a multi-billion dollar Gulf cleanup and restoration effort.

Ironically, this latest explosion occurred as Louisiana's governor, along with other state and local officials, were calling on President Obama to lift the moratorium on deepwater drilling that he imposed three months ago. Both explosions serve as graphic reminders that drilling for oil thousands of feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico remains a very risky business.

This week's accident also reinforces the need to create a culture of safety in this industry, much as the culture we have endeavored to create in our nation's 104 nuclear power plants.

With the goal of safety in mind, a new cop has been put on the beat. It is called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement or BOEM, and housed within the U.S. Department of the Interior. One of BOEM's first responsibilities is to create a new regulatory framework and enforcement structure to replace the abysmal efforts of the former Minerals Management Service to regulate the offshore oil industry.

Let me hasten to add, though, that all was not cause for gloom and doom in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration briefed us that the trillions of oil-eating microbes that Mother Nature has deployed throughout the Gulf of Mexico continue to provide by far the most cost effective cleanup work that's being done in the Gulf. Just a few months ago the water was teeming with oil, now the presence of oil is measured in parts per billion.

While the skimmers there still skim occasionally, and hundreds of miles of boom remain deployed to protect beaches and marsh land, the tide has turned in this battle. As further proof, on the day we were there, the federal government reopened several thousand square miles of additional federal fishery waters to fishermen.

That doesn't mean that there isn't still plenty of work to do in the months ahead. There is. But a lot of good work has already been done. It's still being done by a large and dedicated team led by the Coast Guard, and includes - among others - the U.S. Army, the National Guard, NOAA, EPA, local fishermen and their "vessels of opportunity," some BP employees, and private contractors like Miller Environmental from Corpus Christi, Texas, whom we met.

The battle is likely to rage for some time over whether we should continue to remain dependent on hard-to-recover fossil fuels like the oil that lies thousands of feet below the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and whether we should remain dependent on the enormous quantities of oil that we import from undemocratic, unstable countries around the world, oil that now comprises a third of our nation's huge trade deficit.

While that battle rages, though, America has got to be smart enough to put the pedal to the metal to hasten the day when we harness the power of the wind off our coasts to help power millions of flex-fuel, plug-in hybrid vehicles like GM's Volt and Fisker's Karma and Nina that will be built right here in America and my home state of Delaware. And, we've got to make even bigger strides in harnessing the energy of the sun, deploying nuclear energy, and utilizing other safe, clean energy sources to meet more of our energy needs. Finally, we need to adopt energy conservation policies that affirm our country's belief that the cleanest, most affordable form of energy in the world is the energy we never use.

Sen. Carper is the senior senator from the state of Delaware. He is the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management and recently returned from a visit to the Gulf coast where he toured impacted marshlands off the coast of Louisiana, visited a beach cleanup site and was briefed on the cleanup and recovery efforts from the Coast Guard.

The trip was part of Sen. Carper's ongoing examination of the Gulf coast oil spill cleanup and claims process. Sen. Carper held two hearings this summer, "The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: Ensuring a Financially Responsible Recovery Parts I and II," which focused on the costs associated with the response and recovery operations relating to the oil spill in the Gulf. As part of these hearings, the subcommittee heard testimony from representatives of BP, Transocean, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC (a subsidiary of Mitsui Oil Exploration Company), the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Kenneth Feinberg, head of the BP claims process.

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