Barely less than a year since the worst oil spill in US history, some members of Congress think we should be drilling more in the very region that suffered during last year’s BP Deepwater Horizon spill. A series of bills sponsored by Representative Doc Hastings (R-WA) would speed up the permitting process for oil drilling proposals and open new areas in the Gulf of Mexico to extraction. The pro-drilling legislation has won the backing of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile environmental groups and some lawmakers are lambasting the plan as foolhardy.
“These bills were written as though the Deepwater Horizon disaster had never occurred,” said Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) in a statement before a House subcommittee last week. “These bills would take us in the completely wrong direction. They could make offshore drilling less safe rather than more safe. They could endanger the lives of our workers, our economy, and our environment.”
Meanwhile the impacts of last year’s spill in the Gulf are still reverberating through local economies. More than six hundred miles of polluted coastline remain to be cleaned up, and fisheries have still not fully recovered from the spill. Over 130,000 Gulf residents who suffered damages from the oil spill are still waiting to have their compensation claims processed. Gulf beaches are still strewn with tar balls and pools of oil. With the onset of warmer weather this summer, blankets of solidified oil on the coast are expected to melt into a liquid that soils the feathers of birds with toxic residue.
Proponents of increased drilling in the Gulf of Mexico say the oil industry has learned from mistakes that led to the disaster in the Gulf. Yet the fact is Congress has not passed any oil spill response bill that would guarantee such a disaster doesn’t happen again. The Republican leadership in Congress has declined to consider legislation that would increase oversight of the oil industry, choosing to focus instead on removing barriers to risking drilling proposals like the one that led to catastrophe last year.
Republicans in Congress say more oil drilling is needed to bring gasoline prices down. But not everyone is convinced this will work. “Since America only has 3% of oil reserves, yet uses 25% of all oil, we simply do not have the supply to match demand,” says a statement on the web site of Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR).”
To achieve energy independence without expanding oil drilling at home, Merkley proposes ramping up investments in renewable energy, designing national infrastructure so it uses energy more efficiently, and making alternative transportation more accessible and readily available. Last month Merkley joined Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) in introducing the Energy Security Act of 2011. This legislation would establish an Energy Security Council to aggressively pursue independence from oil. The Energy Security Act would set a timeline for eliminating reliance on overseas oil imports within twenty years.
Yet with a few exceptions like Snowe, Republicans in Congress seem uninterested in Merkley’s vision of an economy powered by clean energy. In fact in February Republican leaders in the US House of Representatives pushed through a bill that would have slashed funding for a Department of Energy (DOE) clean energy loan guarantee program. Only after a long political fight was DOE funding restored in the budget bill approved by Congress. The DOE immediately announced loans to help finance two major solar energy projects.
It remains to be seen how far bills that increase oil drilling will get in Congress, but it has already become clear there are two competing visions for how the US should deal with high gas prices. One advocates opening more sensitive areas to oil drilling projects like the one which resulted in disaster for the Gulf of Mexico last year. An alternative vision sees the United States investing heavily in renewables and shifting away from an oil-powered economy altogether.
Photo credit: Susan DeMark