Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: What we can learn from the BP oil spill

For those of us who lived through the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill disaster, the pictures of oil-soaked wildlife, polluted beaches and economic pain on the Gulf Coast bring back terrible memories.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the immediate task is to plug the leaks, clean up the oil and help our fellow citizens on the Gulf put their lives back together. We also must ensure that BP (and not the taxpayers) pays for its failure. The president has committed to holding the company accountable, and the government has sent BP its first bill.

But we have to do more. That’s why I’m supporting legislation to retroactively get rid of the outdated $75 million oil company liability cap for damages resulting from spills.

But we also have the opportunity to learn from this tragedy:

Clearly, more needs to be done to minimize the dangers of oil drilling. While oil companies spend a lot of money trying to find and extract oil, they don’t do much thinking about how to prevent or deal with the inevitable accident. That may be why the accident happened in the first place and why no one at BP knew how to kill a spill a mile underwater. And that’s surely why the cleanup methods — hay on the beaches and hair-filled booms — look like those in Santa Barbara more than 40 years ago.

Appointing a commission

Fortunately, the president recently appointed an independent, bipartisan commission to find out what went wrong and, more importantly, how we can prevent another such disaster in the future.

Similar commissions set up after the Three Mile Island and Challenger accidents were very helpful.

The commission is modeled on a bill I introduced in early May. But since the Constitution doesn’t grant the president authority to issue subpoenas, I introduced legislation to give the commission this critical tool so BP and others can’t stonewall this important investigation. Two weeks ago, the bill passed in the House of Representatives with almost unanimous support by a vote of 420-1.

I also publicly called on the president to stop new planned offshore drilling off the East Coast, eastern Gulf of Mexico and in Alaska while a compre-hensive review is under way. Fortunately, he has now taken that step.

Corporation oversight needed

We need to do a better job of overseeing giant corporations whose failures have huge impacts on our lives. It looks like decades of hands-off regulators and their cozy relationships with industry are complicit in this huge problem. Simply put, the oversight agencies, particularly the United States Minerals Management Service, were AWOL for far too long.

If this observation sounds familiar, it’s because it is. In recent years, we have repeatedly seen giant corporations subject to little or no oversight running amok. Worse, when they fail, the resulting calamity is all too often left for others to deal with. Two prime examples are Enron fleecing Californians with inflated electricity costs in 2000 and 2001, and Wall Street banks nearly melting down our entire economy in 2008.

That’s why I introduced legislation to raise the civil and criminal penalties for polluters that violate environmental and safety laws and regulations. This bill will deter oil companies from playing fast and loose with the rules that protect our fragile coastal economies and environment.

Over the course of the last month, my committees have taken testimony from BP and other private companies, as well as federal and state agencies responsible for oversight of offshore drilling. Make no mistake: I am committed to tough oversight and accountability of “big oil.”

It’s also why I’ve been pushing Wall Street reform legislation. Free-market capitalism is a powerful force that has brought us unrivaled prosperity. But it has to be tempered with smart, effective regulation that puts the interest of consumers, taxpayers and Main Street before the interests of giant corporations.

Making clean energy a reality

Finally, we need to transition to a clean-energy economy as soon as possible. The unfolding tragedy off the Gulf of Mexico reinforces the reality that oil drilling is a dirty and dangerous business and shows that we must not only push efforts to prevent new drilling off our coasts, but also take immediate steps to end the drilling already underway.

Santa Barbara’s Platform A, the source of the oil spill in 1969 that spilled more than 3 million gallons of oil into our ocean and onto our beaches, is still producing oil 40 years later. This is unacceptable and shows the need to end the drilling that continues to feed our national addiction to oil.

The Gulf spill has tragically illustrated the dangers of our fossil fuel addiction to our environment, economy and national security. With only 2 percent of the world’s oil supply and 25 percent of the world’s demand, our addiction to oil is holding us hostage, often to nations that wish us harm.

I’ve long supported a new energy policy that ensures we use less energy and get increasing amounts of it from renewable sources. Here, we have made some progress recently.

For example, Democrats in Congress and the president were finally able to increase the fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks and dramatically increase the efficiency standards of windows, appliances and buildings.

The House of Representatives has passed legislation to require utilities to generate more of their power from renewable sources and to incentivize homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient. And we are making unprecedented investments in solar, wind and geothermal energy development. But this is just a start, and we have so much more to do.

We can learn from this tragedy. Just as the 1969 oil spill brought about Earth Day and a new commitment to environmental protection, so too can this tragedy result in positive change and not just more bad memories.

Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, represents California's 23rd Congressional District, which includes portions of San Luis Obispo County.