Gulf oil crisis calls for leadership, not for protection of oil interestes

Posted: Sunday, May 23, 2010

It's been a month now since a BP offshore oil rig exploded, adding hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil to the growing mess each day.

NOAA has confirmed that some of the oil has entered the Loop current, a powerful conveyor belt that sends water - and now oil - clockwise around the Gulf of Mexico toward Florida. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said heavy oil made its first significant landfall in the state's coastal marshlands.

"The day that we have all been fearing is upon us today," he told reporters.

And what does Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking minority member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, do in response to this growing mess? She blocks a bill to raise the liability cap for oil spills from $75 million to $10 billion. Instead of learning from Alaska's disappointing experience with Exxon Valdez, she comes to the rescue of Big Oil in the midst of this unfolding tragedy of epic proportions.

What is our once-moderate senator thinking? Apparently, she supports raising the cap, but thinks the $10 billion figure would prohibit all but the biggest of oil companies from drilling offshore. In other words, she wants to make sure that the independent oil companies can "Drill, baby, drill" with the biggest of Big Oil. As Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, notes, Murkowski's characterization of "independent" oil and gas companies doesn't hold up, as it takes very large investments for offshore exploration and drilling in the first place.

"This isn't mom and pop in the grocery store around the corner," he said.

Ultimately, the question of liability should not be about maximizing the number of drilling companies but about the real costs of clean-up and paying for damages in the event of a disaster.

Last week, Murkowski's office was facing critics who were asking whether her blocking the liability increase had anything to do with the fact she is a major supporter of offshore drilling or because she has received more than $400,000 in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry over her eight-year Senate career.

While we can't be sure what her motivation really is, this amount of campaign support does make me wonder, particularly when I also consider her unending efforts to advance a provision penned by oil lobbyists to block EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases ahead of any comprehensive climate and energy bill. I can't help but notice how the dots appear to connect Big Oil big money champion in the Senate.

In the midst of the Gulf economic and environmental tragedy that will now loop in more states, this is not the time to do the bidding of Big Oil and block raising the limits of oil spill liability. Now is the time to demand accountability for: cleaning up the spill; destroying the economic and social fabric of communities; regulatory oversight; lack of a sustainable energy policy; and for our heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

Where is the path to lessen our reliance on oil? Where is the solution to leveling the playing field so that alternative energy can compete effectively in the marketplace? If most developed nations use less than half the amount of oil we do on a per capita basis and remain economically vibrant, why can't the United States? These are the questions I want answered - not the question about whether or not $10 billion is the right number for spill liability.

Many leaders look to the "opportunity for change" when confronted with a crisis on the scale we are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, Sen. Murkowski's perspective for opportunity appears to be limited to protecting the interests of the oil and gas industry. Representing Alaska, a state which has one-third of the economy and 80 percent of the state's general fund dependent on oil and gas, Murkowski can politically justify her perspective. But this is not leadership amidst the crisis. This is not seizing the moment to build meaningful change for a secure energy future for our children.

Earlier this week, I met some of our cruise ship visitors from the Gulf of Mexico region. They were fearful that the spill would undo the economic viability of their seafood industry. They told me about generations of crab and shrimp fishermen who have no other livelihood. They fretted about the impact of tar balls on their beaches and the subsequent hit to their tourism economy. I offered what little sympathy I could. Then they said with an accent of Southern determination, "Maybe some good could come of all this. Maybe we could figure out how to get off oil or use less of it anyway. Maybe we can finally figure out a path to better, cleaner energy."

On that note, we readily agreed. For these visitors and all the harmed communities they represent, as well as for my children, I strongly urge Sen. Murkowski to look beyond Alaska's vested interest in oil and gas and be an energy leader for the future. Make something worthwhile come of this crisis.

Kate Troll has more than 18 years of experience in Alaska fisheries and coastal management policy and has been working the past four years on climate and energy issues.

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