As oil rushes into the Gulf, here's what lawmakers should do

As Senate lawmakers today hear testimony about the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, they should focus on these needed reforms:

1. Pass “Your Spill, Your Bill.” Congress should pass H.R. 5214, the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act, would increase the liability of deepwater leaseholders responsible for an oil spill from a paltry $75 million to $10 billion. Importantly, this legislation would retroactively apply to the current disaster. Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate. It is important to note the difference between these bills and one introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, S. 3309. Murkowski, who hails from the oil-producing state of Alaska, proposes increasing liability for spills to $10 billion, but rather than expose oil company executives and shareholders to that liability, her measure instead asks consumers to pony up the $10 billion by increasing the 8-cent-per-barrel tax on both domestic and imported oil to 9 cents.

2. Restructure the Regulator. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) in the Department of the Interior has structural schizophrenia: On one hand, the agency must act as a cheerleader for oil drilling, as it’s responsible for delivering tons of cash to the U.S. treasury from lease sales and collected royalties. But on the other hand, MMS is supposed to protect the environment and workers by being a tough, independent enforcer of safety rules. This split personality causes internal problems that are not necessarily the fault of the agency’s hardworking civil servants. One solution would be to spin off the agency’s environmental regulatory duties to the Environmental Protection Agency and the workplace safety rules to the Occupational Safety and Health Addministration, and let MMS retain its functions of overseeing lease sales and royalty collections.

3. Put Safety First. Regulations that would have required emergency backup blowout prevention (BOP) valves that could be controlled acoustically – as they are in Norway and Brazil – were not adopted, after heavy lobbying against them by Big Oil. In March 2000, MMS released a safety alert saying that “the MMS considers a backup BOP actuation system to be an essential component of a deepwater drilling system and, therefore, expects [outer continental shelf] operators to have reliable backup systems for actuating the BOP.” But MMS never adopted regulations requiring such backup BOPs. Indeed, in March 2003, a consultant hired by MMS concluded that mandating such acoustic controls would be “very costly.” We see now why oil companies should be required to spend the $500,000 that such acoustic BOPs cost. Safety regulations haven’t kept pace with the new dangers posed by deepwater wells.

4. Hold Big Oil Accountable. If BP and its partners are found to have negligently caused this disaster, we can’t be satisfied with another financial slap on the wrist. We must consider permanent sanctions against them and any other companies that cause spills – whether that’s denying them access to lucrative leases, keeping them from securing federal contracts or revoking their corporate charters. All options must be on the table to send a clear message to corporations that criminal misconduct will not be tolerated.

5. Ban New Drilling. We should permanently ban all new offshore drilling, leasing and permitting. The environmental and human costs are simply not worth the tiny supply of oil we may procure. Instead, we should be aggressively developing forms of renewable energy. That’s the only way to reduce the chances of a repeat of this nightmarish disaster that gets worse by the day.

Tyson Slocum is the director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program.