Thank you, Madam Chair, for scheduling today’s important hearing to examine the use and impacts of oil dispersants to mitigate the BP oil spill. Following the tragic Exxon Valdez oil spill, the National Contingency Plan (NCP) was updated to address new issues that might arise in the event of an oil spill of national significance. Among other things, the NCP was amended to require a pre-approved list of dispersants deemed safe for emergency use by the Environmental Protection Agency. By creating a pre-approved list, oil spill responders have an effective tool to fight the devastating effects of an oil spill quickly and without bureaucratic delay.
Let me be clear: nobody is advocating for the use of dispersants unless they are absolutely necessary, but with the BP disaster, they appear to be the lesser of two evils. I am disappointed that this important tool–which was first approved for use by EPA and then-Administrator Carol Browner in 1994–was implemented in fits and starts. EPA first approved, then stopped, then approved again the use of dispersants. I am concerned that EPA’s back and forth—which runs counter to having a list approved prior to an emergency—may have exacerbated the damages caused by the BP spill.
The Administration’s actions are somewhat baffling considering top officials have clearly stated that dispersants are safe and effective. Carol Browner, now President Obama’s Energy and Climate Change Czar, has been quoted comparing dispersants to dish soap and just last week said, "We have been using dispersant. We do monitor, the EPA monitors regularly. Right now they're not seeing anything of concern. NOAA is also monitoring. They're not seeing anything of concern and right now the monitoring is telling us that everything is OK, but we will continue to monitor." EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, "We know that dispersants are less toxic than oil," and that they “break down over a period of weeks, rather than remaining for several years as untreated oil might." In a report last Tuesday, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said, “The light crude oil is biodegrading quickly…we know that a significant amount of the oil has dispersed and been biodegraded by naturally occurring bacteria.”
The current dispersant being used, Corexit 9500, was formulated following the Exxon Valdez spill and approved by EPA for use in 1994. This dispersant is currently approved for use in 28 countries, and 30 groups have access to samples as well as complete access to its ingredients and mixtures. These groups include 16 academic institutions, multiple federal agencies, including numerous divisions and regions of EPA, and 5 departments within the state government of Louisiana. Legislation covering dispersants has now been introduced in the Senate and passed in the House. The House-passed language institutes a 2-year moratorium on dispersants and requires full public disclosure of ingredients. This would greatly limit our ability to respond to any potential future spills and could drastically diminish our domestic manufacture and supply of dispersants in the future.
Clearly there are uncertainties due to the volume and method of use of dispersants in this current response effort. But we must be measured in how we address these uncertainties, because we could ultimately do more harm than good. I applaud Senator Lautenberg’s efforts in drafting a more reasoned alternative to the House bill. At this point, based on the extensive federal research on dispersants initiated after the BP spill, I’m not sure if Senator Lautenberg’s legislation is needed. I also have some additional concerns with aspects of the bill but will continue to study this issue, and I commit today to work with Sen. Lautenberg on bipartisan legislation if there’s a need for it. Thank you.