Op-Ed: Oil Spill Compensation Act of 2010

We’re entering the third month of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the 22nd year since the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef. In the Gulf of Mexico, as much as 3 million barrels of crude have already spilled from the blown-out well, and in Prince William Sound there is still oil hiding under rocky beaches.

These disasters share more than environmental damage: As was the case in Alaska, the economic and social impact in the Gulf of Mexico also continues to rise. In an all too familiar scenario, the closure of one-third of Gulf waters is depriving fishermen, shrimpers and others who make their living on the sea of their livelihoods. The consequences are rippling through businesses of all sizes, from hotels to family restaurants, and will be felt for years to come.

I saw this devastation firsthand during my recent visit to the Gulf Coast. For anyone familiar with the impacts of the Exxon Valdez, it brings back horrible memories. As we know all too well, our state has not fully recovered from that tragedy, and it took an astounding 20 years to resolve the legal fight over compensation. For too many, justice delayed was justice denied.

Determined to make sure that the Exxon Valdez’s unacceptable aftermath isn’t repeated in the Gulf, and to make sure that history never repeats itself in Alaska, I’ve developed legislation – the Oil Spill Compensation Act – to assist spill victims and hold oil companies fully responsible. This measure was informed by weeks of hearings and meetings, and it offers a chance to reform a system that has clearly failed.

First, my legislation would establish an expedited and independent claims process to ensure that all who are harmed by the Gulf spill – particularly those who need immediate help – promptly receive the money owed to them. To guarantee that compensation actually goes to the victims, lawyers’ fees would be limited to no more than 5 percent of settlements.

Second, my legislation would require the President to set strict liability for each offshore project based on risk factors such as the operator’s safety record and water depth. This process would establish proper accountability for producers and reflect the reality that some operations are more dangerous than others.

Third, to ensure that taxpayers never pay for a spill, my legislation would require the industry as a whole to cover all costs that an individual company may fail to meet. This is similar to the approach used with great success in the nuclear industry. It will provide strong financial incentives for offshore companies to police each other and report bad actors.

Fourth, my legislation would dramatically improve oil spill research and technology development. Our ability to contain a spill in deepwater has lagged far behind our ability to drill for oil in deepwater. It’s time to reverse that trend, and the best way to do so is by providing the Coast Guard with funding and authority to bring our response capacity into the 21st century.

Fifth, in recognition that coastal communities face very real risks and impacts from offshore production, my legislation would require substantial revenue sharing with coastal states. Returning a fair share of revenues will not only promote economic development, it will also allow states to improve their ability to respond in case of a future spill.

Finally, my legislation includes the setup of a 24 member Gulf Regional Citizens Advisory Council, where local residents and stakeholders will issue recommendations for changes to policy and practices in the offshore energy field. This council is modeled after the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, which I believe has been a success. It is critical that those who live and work on the water, and therefore know it best, are able to provide input on response planning and best practices before, not after, any incident occurs.

By necessity, much of my bill focuses on helping those affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill. But it’s also critically important to the future of Alaska as well. As a coastal state with substantial offshore resources, we must do everything possible to minimize the risk of another spill occurring in our own waters. We’ve lived through one before and seen the devastation that results when the tragedy of the spill is exacerbated by being poorly contained, poorly cleaned up, and poorly compensated. My bill is designed to make sure those things never happen again – in the Gulf of Mexico, in Alaska, or anywhere else.

# # #