Nearly one year ago, I stood in Rep. Ed Markey's (D-Mass.) office with CBS News Investigative Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson where we got a first look via closed circuit camera at the oil spewing from the damaged Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. The leaking oil, caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig, gushed out into the blue-green ocean at such a fast pace that it was difficult to look away from the screen.
The explosion that killed 11 workers and ultimately caused almost five million barrels of that oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico would dominate the news on Capitol Hill for the next three months, both in hearing rooms with oil company CEOs taken to task by congressmen, and on the House floor as BP failed to plug the underwater leak for 87 days.
Markey, then the chair of a House energy panel, launched an investigation into the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, and he spearheaded legislation, along with then-Natural Resources Committee chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.V.), that aimed to prevent such an accident from happening again.
The House passed numerous bills related to the crisis. The most comprehensive legislation, the Consolidated Land, Energy and Aquatic Resources Act, or CLEAR Act, would create new federal standards for blowout preventers, well design and cementing programs. The bill would also force companies wanting to drill offshore to first submit their worst-case scenario response plans in the case of a massive blowout disaster. The Secretary of the Interior would also be prohibited from issuing any permits to companies to drill offshore until the oil wells were reviewed for structural soundness.
But the bill died in the Senate along with all the others. Republicans thought the bills went too far and would drastically hurt domestic oil production and the economy. The result of the gridlock is that not a single law passed in the past year to prevent an event like the BP oil spill from happening again.
In the absence of congressional action, President Obama's Interior Department issued new regulations of their own. In order to eliminate conflicts of interest, Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar overhauled the major regulator of offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service, to separate regulatory responsibilities from the job of collecting revenues from oil companies. Today, the revenue collecting is separate from two other agencies. One, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, is meant to develop and manage offshore oil resources. The other, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, is responsible for ensuring drilling safety and protecting the environment.
The administration also implemented its own safety standards that would force oil companies to submit design and disaster response plans. But any regulation the administration implements could be overturned by a future administration, and even these moves don't satisfy lawmakers like Markey.
House Republicans are already working to change the administration's current offshore oil drilling policies that they say are a major reason behind steadily rising gas prices. The House plans to move energy bills next month that would force the administration to lift its ban on new offshore oil drilling permits and require the Department of the Interior to hold oil and natural gas lease sales for the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Virginia. While these measures are likely to pass the House, their future looks dim in the still Democratically-controlled Senate.
Markey, now in the House minority, is pushing Republicans to consider legislation that would implement the president's BP Oil Commission recommendations. The commission's wide-ranging recommendations include whistleblower protections, eliminating the $1 billion liability cap for oil companies in the case of an environmental disaster and requiring by law comprehensive disaster response plans from companies wanting to drill offshore.
Markey says that while the administration has been working to make changes, more needs to be done, especially to examine blowout preventers that are already underwater in the Gulf of Mexico.
"One year after the BP spill began, the American people and the citizens of the Gulf shouldn't believe that another major spill couldn't occur, or that our response wouldn't be as sub-par as it was during last summer's spill. Many holes still exist in our offshore oil drilling safety regime, and another spill could happen again," said Rep. Markey in a statement. "The repetition of this historical disaster would not result from a lack of study, but from an oil industry that still needs massive reform, and from a persistent hubris on the part of fossil fuel boosters."
The anniversary of the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico is tomorrow.