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CLEAR Act sensible law to safeguard environment

Longmont Times-Call

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Washington, Jul 28, 2010 | comments
The media, politicians, and citizens have sought to find what caused the Gulf Oil disaster, who to blame, who did or didn’t do their jobs.  Finger pointing has gone back and forth, was the Bush administration too close to the oil industry or was the Obama administration too slow to clean up the failed regulatory agency, the Minerals Management Service.  What if we could turn back the clock, what if knowing what we know now, we could put the correct reforms in place and prevent such a catastrophe from happening in the future?  Seems like a common sense choice, right?

Unfortunately, today we find ourselves in exactly that position and are on the brink of making the wrong choices.  Congress will have the opportunity in the coming days and weeks to pass legislation that corrects many of the regulatory shortcomings that have directly contributed to the disaster currently fowling Gulf Coast beaches and ravaging fragile marine wildlife.  However, as with much of our legislation in these days of close votes, this bill, the “CLEAR Act,” risks being weakened and rendered ineffective in preventing  spills and contamination events that regularly occur across the nation, onshore and offshore.  Prevention needs to be our focus.

Through the many hearings and investigations that Congress has undertaken thus far, we know that several key problems allowed  bad actors  to bypass what safeguards were in place under our nation’s laws.  We learned that the Deepwater Horizon was given an exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 2007, exempted from assessing the environmental damage that the rig would or could possibly cause.  We learned that the regulators in the defunct MMS were also those in charge of royalty collection, a conflict of interest that led to a high profile corruption meltdown within the agency.  We learned that important safety response documents were simply copied from projects thousands of miles away in the arctic, listing arctic wildlife as critical species and naming a dead expert as the central point of contact in the event of a catastrophic spill.  Finally, we learned that the MMS routinely approved lease sales and drilling and exploration permits without following requirements under the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammals Protection Act and other key environmental and fishing protection laws.  

As with the oversight loopholes that led to the Gulf Deepwater Horizon, mirror problems exist today onshore that leave us vulnerable to continuing and future disasters if left unaddressed.  As with the Deepwater Horizon, ‘categorical exclusions’ to the National Environmental Policy Act are commonplace, so much so that the Government Accountability Office reported on the abuse of this practice in 2009.  As with the corruption laden MMS, onshore regulators are also the same individuals charged with raising and collecting revenue putting in place the very same conflicts of interest.  Finally, no other practice has been so systematically written out of our nation’s key environmental and public health protection laws.  Exemptions and loopholes currently exist under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act to name just a few.  These shortcomings and problems with our current regulatory system have become more prominent and well known in light of the disaster in the Gulf.  On the heels of spills and well blowouts in Utah, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and ongoing concerns in New York, Texas and California, The Denver Post published an excellent article highlighting the over 1,000 spills and over 5 million gallons of spilled materials in just the last two and a half years in Colorado.  

As Congress works to address our nation’s largest environmental catastrophe, we must ensure that prevention of future and ongoing problems is the foundation to the legislation and laws that are produced.  The CLEAR Act that has passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee is an excellent start and should not be weakened.  We must ensure that our country’s safety and regulatory framework are sound and will protect us from future oil disasters.  The reforms the CLEAR Act proposes are modest at best, forgoing more controversial or expansive regulatory reforms, instead pursuing the most egregious oversight shortcomings.  The bill that was passed by the Resources committee, and the bill I hope will pass the full house, has at its foundation the prevention of future catastrophes, a goal that should be the least that congress can accomplish in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon.  
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