406 Dirksen EPW Hearing Room

Benjamin L. Cardin


May 11, 2010

Madam Chair: Former Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) said that the idea for Earth Day came to him in the summer of 1969 when he was on a speaking tour out west. One of the stops on his trip was Santa Barbara, where he saw first-hand the effects of the blow-out on Union Oil’s Platform A, six miles off the coast. Over a 10-day period, 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil spilled onto the beaches and killed over 10,000 birds.

How ironic that last month, on the very day we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig – after burning for two days – listed and then sank into the Gulf of Mexico, breaking loose of the riser pipe connecting it to an oil well 5,000 feet below on the seabed. That ruptured pipe is now leaking 5,000 barrels of crude oil into the Gulf each day. If that rate holds, about one month from today, this spill will surpass the Exxon Valdez accident as the worst oil spill in the United States. What’s frightening to consider is that the Exxon Valdez disaster ranks as the 35th worst oil spill in history. Thirty-four have been bigger.

It’s frustrating to me that here we are, 40 years later, still addicted to petroleum. The only difference between this Earth Day and the first Earth Day is that we drill deeper wells and have bigger tankers now. So while the odds of an accident occurring may have gone down, the potential magnitude of an accident – and the technological difficulties of containing it – have skyrocketed. As we are seeing now in the Gulf.

The BP spill underscores the urgent necessity of forging a new energy policy that reduces our dependence on oil as quickly as possible. It’s imperative to base that policy on honest, accurate assessments of risks and benefits. Too much of the information we have heard about the spill indicates that the parties involved – including the Federal Government – systematically understated the risks involved in deep water drilling. The Minerals Management Service, for instance, gave BP a “categorical exclusion” for Deepwater Horizon, exempting the drilling from detailed environmental analysis. Reuters reports that between 250 and 400 exploration programs in the Gulf have been granted these exclusions.

Today’s hearing might be entitled “Oil and Water Don’t Mix.” We’re going to explore the environmental and economic impacts of the BP spill on the Gulf Coast States, particularly Louisiana. Those impacts will be devastating and long-lasting.

This past Saturday was International Migratory Bird Day. But instead of celebrating migratory birds, we are scrambling to mitigate what could be a catastrophic loss in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the most important breeding, nesting, wintering, and migration corridors in the world. The BP spill threatens to devastate migratory birds from as far away as Canada, Alaska, and South America and, of course, it threatens local bird populations.

There’s no good time for a spill but this may be the worst possible time. The birds are breeding, nesting, and especially vulnerable. All in all, there are some 280 species of migratory and resident birds in the coastal areas and open water of the Gulf, along with five different species of sea turtles; 20 species of whales and dolphins; several species of tuna, swordfish, grouper, snapper, and other fish; shrimp; oysters, and blue crab. It’s high spawning season right now and fish, shrimp, oyster, and crab eggs and larvae are particularly vulnerable to oil and to dispersants. The New York Times reported last week that most of the domestic seafood Americans eat comes from Alaska or Louisiana The shrimp industry, which produced 90 million pounds in 2008, accounts for $1.3 billion a year.

With regard to tourism, between 30 and 40 percent of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama’s revenue comes from the coastal parishes and counties most likely to be affected by the spill. In the Pensacola Bay area, tourism generates roughly $550 million yearly.

I haven’t even addressed what the consequences might be if the BP spill gets into what’s known as the “loop current” and the oil slick spreads around the Florida Keys and up the Atlantic Coast. I’m not anxious to find out what the effects of that would be on the Chesapeake Bay, Assateague, and Ocean City in my home state of Maryland. That’s why I’m relieved the President has suspended Lease Sale 220, an offshore area just 50 miles east of the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. It’s not a permanent ban but it’s a start.

This hearing is going to provide grisly detail into the dark side of our oil addiction. I know that we can’t break that addiction overnight. We’re not going to stop all drilling. But we cannot expand offshore drilling to where the risks far outweigh the benefits, such as the Mid-Atlantic. And we really must re-dedicate ourselves to developing and implementing an energy policy that protects the environment, bolsters the economy, enhances our security, and re-establishes our global leadership on combating climate change.

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