Mary Landrieu: Safe Offshore Drilling Is Key for Our Energy Future

A new regulatory regime should focus on deep-water operations with greater risk and technology.

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Mary Landrieu is a Democratic senator from Louisiana and a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

As we remain mindful of the 11 men who perished on the Deepwater Horizon and continue to pray for their families, Gulf Coast communities are experiencing an unprecedented ecological disaster. Corrosive effects on the environment, economy, and way of life mount each day. Shock and sadness is turning to anger and frustration as we watch the thick, brown sludge seep into our bountiful marshes and wetlands.

[See photos of the Gulf oil spill disaster.]

These are not just Louisiana’s wetlands. They are America’s wetlands, and this is America’s working coast. The oil and gas, fishing, shipping, ecotourism, and hospitality industries all share it. Accounting for 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands, Louisiana’s coast produces 90 percent of America’s offshore energy and as much as 40 percent of the seafood harvested in the lower 48 states.

Yet efforts to protect our fragile and deteriorating coast have met with resistance from a government unwilling to acknowledge the risk communities bear when hosting drilling offshore. This began to change in 2006 when Congress approved a law allowing energy-producing coastal states to share a portion of federal revenues generated from resource development, a system interior states have enjoyed since 1920. But the legislation stipulated that states not receive significant funding until 2017. This shortsightedness is now painfully apparent as oil laps onto our beaches and marshes. To give the Gulf states a fighting chance to save their coast and America’s wetlands, revenue sharing must begin now.

Congress should also stay focused on America’s energy challenges. Even as we pursue renewable forms of energy, the United States consumes more than 20 million barrels of oil daily. Yet we produce less than half of that domestically. And more than 20 percent of our electricity is generated by natural gas, which is also important for chemical and fertilizer production. Natural gas can address several environmental concerns, including smog and greenhouse gas emissions, making it the bridge fuel to a low-carbon future.

Safely meeting America’s demand for oil and gas will require the federal government to clean house at the Minerals Management Service and hire, train, and pay the most-qualified people to oversee this important industry. As we consider the future of oil and gas production off our shores, a new regulatory regime should focus on deep-water operations (those in more than 1,000 feet of water) that feature greater risk and more challenging technology. At the direction of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, shallow water operations are proceeding. This decision will preserve thousands of jobs in the region and the future of hundreds of companies that would be put at risk with unnecessary delays.

We must learn the right lessons and take measured steps forward. Congress cannot afford to react to this disaster as we did following the meltdown at Three Mile Island, when the government unwisely halted all nuclear power plant construction for 30 years. Our nation should instead respond as we did after the Challenger tragedy. NASA put the shuttle program on hiatus, carefully reviewed what went wrong, and corrected those mistakes. As a result, the United States is still the standard bearer in space technology and an industry that generates hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs is thriving.

We can remain the world leader in offshore energy production, including oil, gas, wind, wave, and other technologies. But we must do so in a way that protects the world’s oceans and our coastal communities. With bold vision, innovation, and the right leadership, America can meet this challenge.

Read why new offshore drilling is a bad idea, by Bill Nelson, a Democratic senator from Florida and a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the Gulf oil spill.
  • See which members of Congress get the most money from the oil and gas industry.