Opening Statement of Senator James M. Inhofe
Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Thank you, Madam Chairman. I first want to say that our prayers are with the families who lost loved ones in the tragic explosion in the Gulf. I also want to recognize all the men and women in the oil and gas industry, who work every day to provide the energy we need to fuel America. And a note of thanks to all of the volunteers-from conservation groups to fishermen to Gulf Coast residents-who are helping with the response effort.
Before I begin, let me say that the fact that we are holding this hearing today troubles me a great deal. It's too early to begin assessing what caused this terrible tragedy. And the people testifying today should be spending their valuable time assisting with the response effort.
This incident was indeed tragic. We will feel its consequences for some time, even as we try to understand what happened. We also continue to assess the extent of the environmental and economic impacts. I hope today's hearing will enlighten us as to the possible causes of the spill.
There will be a number of hearings this week on this subject-I hope they remain focused on the facts and what we need to do to solve this problem.
With that in mind, I think Congress should focus on three priorities as we move forward. We need to:
- Mitigate and contain the environmental impacts;
- Provide assistance to the Gulf's commercial and recreational fishing industries; and
- Investigate the causes so we can prevent a disaster of this kind from happening again.
If we stay focused on those priorities, then we can make prudent short- and long-term policy decisions as we address this spill and its causes.
One of our witnesses today, Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney (Ret.), will help move us in that direction. He will provide some valuable historical perspective: Lt. Gen. McInerney led the military's response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which occurred over 20 years ago.
At the time, I was serving on two House committees investigating the causes of Exxon Valdez. In 1990, Congress unanimously passed the Oil Pollution Act, OPA, a sensible bill that serves as the controlling statute covering offshore accidents such as the one we are dealing with now. In fact, this committee has jurisdiction over OPA.
Though Congress stepped up to the task, we can't forget that Exxon Valdez was politicized, and continues to be politicized, by certain activist groups bent on blocking access to America's domestic resources. I believe their actions made America more dependent on foreign oil, from countries that have few environmental restrictions. It's also important to note that Exxon Valdez was a transportation-related incident. The fact that we have grown more dependent on foreign oil means we have more tanker traffic, and thus we have created greater risk of an accident occurring than what would normally be the case if we had produced the oil right here at home.
This was a point made recently by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. He noted that some may attempt to "overreach" for an end to offshore production. But, he wrote, "we need to remember that even if we halted all off-shore drilling, all we would be doing is moving the production to other areas outside the U.S., probably with even weaker environmental laws." Exactly.
Yet, some activist groups refuse to acknowledge this reality-and, just as they did in 1990, they are exploiting the Gulf tragedy for political gain. Again, I urge my colleagues to remain focused on mitigating the damage, getting all the facts, and investigating the causes. If we need to pass legislation, let's be sure it solves the problem. Let's protect the marine environment, but remember we can do that-and indeed the industry has done that in the vast majority of cases-in tandem with oil and gas production. In other words, the two are not mutually exclusive.
In the meantime, there is an aggressive, ongoing response effort. I spoke with EPA Administrator Jackson, and she assured me that the agency is doing all it can to respond. I appreciate her leadership efforts thus far. I've also contacted the Coast Guard to get its perspective on the response effort. My staff is communicating with the Pentagon. I also launched a webpage that serves as a clearinghouse for information on the spill.
If we find gross negligence or other violations of federal law on the part of oil companies or their subcontractors, then we will hold them accountable. By the same token, if federal officials failed to exercise proper oversight or implement specific requirements, then we will hold them accountable, too.
Madame Chair, let's work together to find out what happened and take the responsible path toward a legislative solution, if needed. That's what the American people want and what the residents of the Gulf Coast deserve.