The sticky truth about petrol

Posted: Monday, May 17, 2010

The following editorial firstappeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

Depending on which source is talking, anywhere from 100,000 to 210,000 gallons of oil are spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every day that the leaks at BP's Deepwater Horizon well remain uncapped.

The Joint Incident Command estimates that the well has leaked at least 74,000 barrels of oil, or 3.1 million gallons, since the April 20 explosion 50 miles from the Louisiana coast.

Currents in the Gulf make it unlikely that the Texas coastline will be hit by most of the mess, but beachgoers shouldn't be surprised to see tar balls washing up in a few weeks. Of course, coastal residents and regular visitors to the Texas beaches are familiar with the sticky remnants of minor spills from oil drilling in the Gulf.

A reality in 21st-century America is that the nation's dependence on oil isn't going away anytime soon. Drilling on land or under water remains a necessity - or an evil, depending on one's viewpoint. But virtually every person who decries the environmental damage that's a byproduct of oil exploration has a house or office filled with petroleum-based products.

As Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Tuesday during an interview on KPCC public radio in Los Angeles, "(W)e are so dependent on oil as an energy source that we subject ourselves to these disasters." The BP spill, without question, is the poster child for why the nation must develop cleaner energy sources: fuel cells, solar, wind, nuclear. But even as the country moves away from oil, the need for it remains.

The Senate energy bill introduced Wednesday recognizes that reality by including provisions calling for some offshore drilling.

A permanent ban on offshore drilling would be a knee-jerk reaction to a catastrophic event. That said, the industry must demonstrate more than just a willingness to prevent or control the damage that's risked every time a pipe is sunk into the ocean.

If it takes outside impetus to make that happen, so be it. Congress should get the industry's attention with proposals to lift limits on punitive damages against big oil companies involved in spills and to raise civil and criminal penalties associated with violating provisions of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.

Industry isn't the only responsible party in this passion play. States have been more than happy to bank a share of the revenues generated by offshore drilling. Will they be so pleasant if they are expected to share the cost of cleanup and prevention? Do they raise that money by establishing oil spill liability trust funds similar to the one run by the feds and funded through a per-barrel tax?

During testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday, executives from BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and well contractor Halliburton pointed fingers at one another instead of taking responsibility. It was a clear signal that lawsuits are likely to tie up payments of "legitimate" claims, as BP's top executive Tony Hayward phrased it, for the near future.

Too easily forgotten in all the talk about blame-placing and cleanup payments is that 11 men lost their lives in that blast. Their families will never be made whole, no matter how much money is doled out in compensation checks.

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