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Non-partisan and Optimistic: Oceans bring out the best in Congress

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On Tuesday September 13, 2011, a non-partisan and optimistic group of senators came together to kick off the establishment of the Senate Oceans Caucus in the United States Senate. With remarks centered around bragging about who has more coastline or whose state borders not just one but two oceans, the mood was refreshingly friendly and full of optimism. With remarks about the common ground (water?) that brings them together these group of Senators seemed, well, positively senatorial. Acting with a sense of leadership and a commitment to protect those things that Americans hold dear, tonight there not only was an absence of the partisan bickering that has caused the Capitol to come to a virtual screeching halt but there was also actual friendly optimism indicating that we can work together in D.C.

Kicked off by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and followed up by co-chair Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) the remarks by all tonight centered around what we can do together rather than what we can do to do to undermine each other.

And if bi-partisan wasn’t enough, Representative Sam Farr, chair of the House Coastal Caucus, stopped by expressing his enthusiasm for the formation of an ocean-minder coalition in the Senate making oceans a bicameral effort.

As Senator Whitehouse remarked “this is day one.” The real test of the effectiveness of the caucus begins now.

The remarks of Senators Whitehouse and Murkowski from the Senate Oceans Caucus reception are available as MP3 files for download below.

microphone   http://whnuckolsconsulting.com/audio/whitehouse.MP3

  http://whnuckolsconsulting.com/audio/murkowski.MP3

photo of Senators kicking off the Senate Oceans Caucus

Senators Whitehouse and Murkowski will co-chair the bi-partisan Senate Oceans Caucus that was formed on September 13, 2011.

The members of the Caucus are: Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Mark Begich (D-AK), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Scott Brown (R-MA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tom Carper (D-DE), Chris Coons (D-DE), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), John Kerry (D-MA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Also in attendance were a number of Obama Administration officials including Dr. John Holdren from OSTP, Nancy Sutley from CEQ and Jane Lubchenco from NOAA.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com
You can follow Will Nuckols on Twitter at @enviroxpert

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Senator Murkowski’s rationale for blocking the Senate bill to raise oil spill liability to $10 billion is severely flawed

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On May 4, 2010 Senator Menendez (D-NJ), backed by 14 cosponsors, introduced Senate bill S.3305, the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Liability Act of 2010 – an incredibly streamlined bill that has one significant line of policy:    

“Section 1004(a)(3) of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (33 U.S.C. 2704(a)(3)) is amended by striking `$75,000,000′ and inserting `$10,000,000,000′ ”    

Senator Murkowski's opening remarks at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ranking Member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, clearly stated in her own remarks in a Senate hearing that “production of energy will never be without risk or environmental consequence"

 

 By stopping a voice vote on the floor yesterday, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) blocked the quick passage of the short bill. As rationale for the procedural move, Senator Murkowski said raising the liability limit for oil producers from 75 would unfairly advantage large oil companies by pricing the small companies out of the market. But the goal of keeping in the small companies who cannot withstand the cost burden of oil spills means that the taxpayer will end up footing the bill of a large cleanup.    

In some sense we are lucky that the accident in the Gulf of Mexico happened to one of the oil majors and not a small producer. BP has the financial ability to step up and make the promises that have been made publically – to pay all legitimate claims for damages resulting from the spill. BP is self-insured and will take a hit in terms of the global company’s profits, but they can withstand the losses. If this happened to a small company with significantly less assets, would they volunteer to pay beyond the current $75 million cap allowed in current legislation? It is quite likely that they would not. And who picks up that bill? Obviously the public does.    

So given that on May 11, 2010 Senator Lisa Murkowski, ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, clearly stated in her own remarks in a Senate hearing that “production of energy will never be without risk or environmental consequence,” one can only conclude that another spill will occur one day.    

The question at hand then is who will pay to clean up the spill and address its environmental damages. If small producers are unable to guarantee that they will fix and harm they cause at levels above $75 million, we need to seriously consider whether we want those companies who are marginal to be allowed to drill in U.S. waters.    

Competition in the marketplace is great, but it is important in any well-functioning market to have a level playing field. And in this case, a level playing field should mean those companies who want access to the public’s offshore oil assets must be able to guarantee that they can address a mess if one comes up.    

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.

Stopping oil exploration is not a realistic option

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It’s time for the environmental community to return to reality about the nation’s energy policy.

     

Deepwater Horizon oil platform on fire before sinking

The Deepwater Horizon accident has put an end to the denial that major oil spills are a thing of the past

 

Is the ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that likely resulted from the failure of the blowout preventer 5000 feet beneath Transocean’s floating drill platform Deepwater Horizon anything short of a huge ecological mess? Definitely not. But should this cause an overreaction to offshore drilling, cancelling all efforts to extract oil from US waters? No, not now.     

I know that my fellow ardent environmentalists are saying “Will, how can you support an oil economy given the recent disaster?” to which I say my response is pragmatic. I readily admit that I do wish an idealist environmental response would be the right public policy option. I really do. But it is not.     

Today on Capitol Hill numerous elected officials were motivated to chime in on day-one of what is sure to be many more days of Congressional hearings about the Deepwater Horizon accident and subsequent oil leaks.     

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, began her statements with two disturbing, and realistic, statements:     

  1. Production of energy will never be without risk

  2. Our nation will need a lot of oil for a long time to come

    

overflow from for Senate EPW oil spill hearing 70 people watch

Significant press coverage and a wide range of interested parties attended the May 11, 2009 afternoon Senate Environment and Public Works hearings - so many so that more than 70 people had to watch the hearing on a large screen in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building

 

 Having the ranking Republican and Alaska native so clearly admit that there will always be dangers with oil drilling means that the oil leaks in the Gulf of Mexico have brought seemingly everyone from their stupor of denial that too long were pervasive energy in policy discussions. It is a sad reality that in the short run (read as for several more years) we will remain largely dependent on an oil  economy, and as a result we are still too easily influenced by offshore interests who can affect the price and access to foreign oil. Moves toward a green energy economy are sorely needed, and should be supported by policies and government assistance as a catalyst; however the projects those policy moves would generate won’t show up overnight. Let’s be realists and remember that it was only a few days ago that we finally approved the Cape Wind project. No clear-headed person can call the timeline to green light the Cape Wind wind-turbine project as “fast tracked national policy” that’s for sure.   

We should have done something about promoting green energy production and infrastructure 20 years ago but we did not. We can’t change the past. However, we do need to be smart about the implications of that past failure to act.     

at a recent peak we still only produced 27% of what we consumed daily

Even in November 2009 when the US hit a domestic oil production high not seen since 2005, we still consumed 3x more imported oil than domestic oil

 

Drill baby drill was an insane plan. Insane because it proposed that domestic oil supply was the savior to our economic and foreign policy struggles. It is not a panacea even for those areas. But, I am sad to say, some domestic production is a necessary evil if we want to make sure our economy and foreign relations issues don’t become even more strained. So what should we do in the ocean and energy policy areas following this disaster? We should all be pressing hard for rational decision making. The Obama Administration’s Ocean Policy Task Force interim report released last fall called for “science based decision making,” and at this juncture that still remains a wise plan of action.   

We should use engineering and risk assessment to determine what design changes, inspections (by industry itself and by government) and disaster response drills and procedures need to be in place if we are to continue to drill, produce and transport petroleum in locations that could affect the environment if a leak occurs. Potentially affected waters would be defined by anyone that has seen NOAA’s Essential Fish Habitat maps for the U.S. as encompassing essentially everywhere in our coastal and marine waters. In other words there are areas we should be vigilant, and areas we should be extremely vigilant. There is no place mapped by NOAA that shows any place where we can slack-off on our emergency plans and procedures as we plan for when our best engineering still fails.   

We should use science to decide which areas can generate significant energy resources, and hold those numbers up against possible economic harms from another disaster. Only when the knee-jerk reactions based on the shock of this horrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico subside will we be able to get back to making sound policy decisions for our nation.   

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy firm.