Letter to Members of Congress Re a Legislative Response to Gulf Oil Spill


Dear Senator/Representative:

We are writing to urge you to support a quick and comprehensive legislative response to the current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon. As this unprecedented environmental disaster unfolds, it has become clear that the statutory regime that governs where, when and how to drill in the offshore environment is in need of substantial review and reform – reform which must take place before any new drilling or exploration activities are approved.

We believe that the management of offshore oil and gas development is deeply flawed, from the five-year planning process through production. Congress must now assert its oversight responsibilities by passing significant reforms of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) and the Oil Pollution Act (OPA), the statutes that govern mineral extraction from our oceans, and oil spill liability, response and recovery.

Congress has not enacted significant amendments to OCSLA since 1978. In the 32 intervening years, advancements in technology have allowed extraction of oil and gas from ever-deeper waters and in new areas, but the regulation and environmental review of all OCS drilling operations has not kept pace. Clearly the technology for extraction has far outstripped responsible Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) planning and the capacity and quality of oil spill prevention and response capabilities. The Gulf ecosystem and shoreline communities are now paying the price.

We urge Congress to undertake the following reforms as soon as possible, paving the way for responsible OCS development:

1. Amend OCSLA to establish a mission and substantive standards that protect the environment and ocean and coastal economies.

OCSLA does not contain meaningful, substantive standards protective of the environment. The statute gives the Secretary broad discretion, and provides little accountability for decisions. OCSLA should be amended to include a clear national policy and enforceable environmental standards that will protect marine resources, the environment and the coastal businesses and economies that rely on healthy marine ecosystems. The amended policy should provide, at a minimum, that oil and gas activities on the OCS are appropriate only in those areas where science shows that oil and gas activities can proceed with minimal risk to the health of ocean ecosystems. Important and sensitive ecological areas where oil and gas activity should not be permitted must be identified and removed from consideration for leasing or production.

2. Fix the OCS planning and leasing process.

The current process for administering oil and gas activities on the OCS does not include agencies with ocean expertise and the Department of the Interior defines “planning areas” to include massive swaths of ocean territory. Combined, these problems thwart transparent, robust environmental review at appropriate scales before exploration and drilling activities proceed. Expert agencies beyond the Minerals Management Service (MMS), such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), should have a greater role in decisions about, and preparation of, environmental analyses for OCS oil and gas activities, including analyses pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). OCS
planning areas should be smaller and precisely focused only on specific lease tracts. OCSLA should be amended to include explicit requirements governing the type of NEPA analysis that must be prepared at each stage of the OCSLA process to ensure that risks are assessed comprehensively. Such a focus would significantly improve the quality of the environmental analysis and subsequent decisions.

3. Require effective oil spill prevention and response.

The Oil Pollution Act should require that a comprehensive evaluation of oil spill risks and response capability is completed before exploration is approved, and OCSLA should be amended so that exploration permits are not issued absent a certification that response capability is sufficient. There should be no limit on liability for damages resulting from oil spills to ensure that the full cost of economic and environmental damages is recovered. The Oil Pollution Act should also establish additional regional citizen advisory councils for oil spill preparedness to guard against the complacency that has plagued the oversight of the offshore oil and gas industry.

4. Ensure that management and recovery needs are adequately funded.

The Oil Pollution Act should be amended to increase the per-barrel tax on oil, which funds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, to ensure that oil spill response needs are adequately funded. This should include funding for research and development of new and more effective spill response methods and technologies. NOAA should be added to the list of agencies receiving appropriations from the Fund to undertake natural resource damage assessments, and adequate funding should be made available for the Coast Guard to ensure that sufficient response capability is available.

5. Invest revenues derived from offshore development in ocean and coastal restoration and conservation.

Congress should establish permanently appropriated, dedicated funding for ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes conservation and management through an Oceans Trust Fund supported by 10% of OCS revenues.

6. Integrate oil and gas development with other ocean planning and management decisions.

Both the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy cited single-sector management as a factor that contributes significantly to the degradation of marine ecosystems. The commissions recommended moving towards ecosystem-based management through multiobjective regional planning for the conservation and management of marine resources. OCSLA should be amended to establish procedures for participation in and compliance with any coastal and marine spatial planning process established by the President and/or Congress.

The current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is the result of a systemic failure. Effective response and restoration will require the cooperation and coordination of many federal, state, local and private interests over a sustained period. Similarly, an effective, comprehensive approach to reform will require multiple agencies of the federal government, and multiple committees of jurisdiction in Congress. That should not be an excuse to delay action.

We urge Congress to undertake OCSLA and OPA reform now, and stand ready to work with you during this process. Please feel free to contact us at the numbers below or contact Karen Steuer, Pew Environment Group Director of Government Relations, at (202) 552-2000, info@pewtrusts.org; or Emily Woglom, Ocean Conservancy Director of Government Relations at (202) 429-5609, info@oceanconservancy.org.


Marilyn Heiman
Director, Offshore Energy Reform Campaign
Pew Environment Group
(202) 552-2000

Janis Jones
Vice President for Program
Ocean Conservancy
(202) 429-5609

The Pew Environment Group’s offshore energy reform work is now a part of Pew’s Arctic Ocean Program.