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Bingaman: How to Prevent the Next Disaster

Our economic, environmental and national security all demand new directions in our country’s energy policy. Energy legislation embodying these changes deserves high priority in this Congress.

A critical part of such legislation should be reforms to ensure that energy exploration and production on our nation’s Outer Continental Shelf is managed to ensure the safety and protection of the environment.

Many Congressional committees have responded to the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. We have all recognized the deep losses experienced not only by the families of those who perished on the Deepwater Horizon rig, but also by the Gulf residents who are suffering the loss of livelihood and places and wildlife that they care deeply about.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has had a special responsibility, not only to understand the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, but also to look to the future and to create a better system for the management of resources on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Last month, the committee voted unanimously in favor of bipartisan legislation, the Outer Continental Shelf Reform Act, that I introduced with ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). This legislation takes important steps to reform the organizations and the principles governing offshore energy production. From more stringent safety requirements to more balanced management of ocean resources, to better research and analysis, to an improved system for inspecting offshore rigs, the bill implements the key changes necessary to manage the Outer Continental Shelf in a responsible way.

A key goal of the bill was, of course, to prevent future disasters. But the committee sought to do more than just that. We wanted to establish both structures and requirements to create a culture of excellence for both the agency and the industry entrusted with our irreplaceable ocean resources. It is not a matter of just avoiding a future cascade of failures, like those that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The committee wanted energy operations in the Gulf of Mexico to be of the highest caliber, in keeping with the extraordinary value to our country of the Outer Continental Shelf. The Outer Continental Shelf Reform Act clarifies that the Department of the Interior has multiple responsibilities in managing these resources, including appropriate energy and other economic development as well as the protection of human health and safety and the marine and coastal environment. It reforms the structure of the department consistent with these responsibilities.

The bill increases the safety requirements for wells, focusing on use of the best available technology, systems analysis, risk assessment, evidence-based safety cases and a full engineering review. It requires a demonstration of a realistic capacity to control wild wells and to respond to oil discharges. To help develop both new standards and better technology, the bill requires new research programs within the Department of the Interior, independent of the leasing program, whose data must be considered by the regulators. It provides dedicated funding for the highest-priority research, including the areas of well control and spill response, and an independent science advisory board outside the agency to provide oversight.

The Outer Continental Shelf Reform Act establishes new requirements for the investigation of all accidents and the public sharing of data from those reviews, so that all can learn from mistakes before they become major problems. It allows the National Transportation Safety Board to provide an independent and highly skilled investigation of any accident at the request of the secretary of the Interior.

In order to fully enforce the safety requirements, the bill imposes an inspection fee on industry participants to fully fund enough well-trained inspectors to perform meaningful inspections more often. It also increases sanctions on poor operators, keeping the bad actors from bidding on new leases and increasing civil and criminal penalties applicable to those who violate the law. The bill provides the Department of the Interior with adequate time to carry out necessary reviews, clarifies the issues that need to be addressed and makes the input of other federal agencies occur in a transparent way. The result should be better decisions that can be implemented with greater certainty.

I believe these principles and resources can set us on a better path toward managing the incredible natural resources of the Outer Continental Shelf. The people of the Gulf, and all Americans who collectively own our incomparable Outer Continental Shelf resources, deserve no less.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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