Bill Nelson: Gulf Oil Spill Shows Danger of Offshore Drilling

No amount of coastal drilling could ever put a dent in our dependence on foreign oil.

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Bill Nelson is a Democratic senator from Florida and a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

Most presidents since the 1980s have supported or even strengthened a national moratorium on offshore oil drilling. They have rightly concluded that it makes no sense to jeopardize our nation’s coastal economies and fragile environments by expanding drilling. After all, the United States has only 3 percent of the world’s oil supply. It simply wouldn’t solve the problem of our reliance on foreign oil, especially when America consumes one-fourth of the oil on earth, four times more than any other nation.

In fact, no amount of coastal drilling could ever put a dent in our dependence on foreign oil. Nor could it bring down gas prices, make us more energy-efficient, or begin to break our addiction to fossil fuels.

Yet in recent years, proposals to expand offshore drilling have surfaced time and again in Congress. These plans put the economies and environments of all coastal states at risk. Spills from platforms, pipelines, and tankers occur too often in the Gulf of Mexico. Even a small rig accident could devastate major industries, such as fishing and tourism, that depend on healthy marine life and clean beaches.

Contrary to BP’s first estimates, we now know the Deepwater Horizon spill already is the worst in our nation’s history. And we still don’t know how much harm it will wreak before it’s cleaned up.

[See photos of the Gulf oil spill disaster.]

We do know that this spill has disproved claims about the safety of offshore drilling. Every device or system touted as fail-safe failed—and the technical capacity of the oil industry to promptly seal a deep-water oil gusher is nonexistent.

But none of this has curbed the oil industry’s push for continued expansion into the waters off coastal states like Florida, Virginia, and Alaska. In Florida, a secretive pro-oil drilling coalition has been trying to push a bill through the state legislature to allow rigs just three miles off the state’s Gulf Coast. I’ve urged the governor to call a special legislative session to consider a constitutional ban on oil drilling in the waters immediately off Florida.

[See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the gulf oil spill.]

The explosion and tragic loss of life on the Deepwater Horizon has made me think of the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who studied the events leading up to the Challenger disaster in 1986. He concluded that when it comes to any technology, “reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” That’s truer today than ever.

In his recent news conference, President Obama conceded, “Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.” He rightly backed off, at least temporarily, from any expansion of deep-water drilling.

The president also correctly recognized that safety isn’t the only issue of concern. The oil industry’s “cozy and sometimes corrupt” relationship with government regulators meant there was little or no oversight at all, he said. Indeed, recent investigations showed drilling regulators engaged in sexual relationships with oil industry representatives, accepted gifts and trips from them, and won jobs with the companies.

In response, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and I have introduced legislation to end these incestuous relationships. We also have a bill to make sure BP, not the American taxpayer, pays for all of this mess.

[See which members of Congress get the most money from the oil and gas industry.]

In the meantime, the scope of this crisis in the Gulf should prompt every American to re-examine Big Oil’s safe-technology claims and support a halt to the industry’s profit-driven push for drilling in new offshore areas.

Read why offshore oil drilling should not go away, by Mary Landrieu, a Democratic senator from Louisiana and a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the Gulf oil spill.