As Alaska Commissioner of Environmental Conservation during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Dennis Takahashi-Kelso was involved with the environmental assessment of that spill and subsequent policy changes. Should the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, created after the Exxon spill, be amended? How does the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico compare to Exxon Valdez? During today's OnPoint, Takahashi-Kelso, now executive vice president at the Ocean Conservancy, discusses the latest developments from the Gulf and Washington.
Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Dennis Takahashi-Kelso, executive vice president at the Ocean Conservancy. Thanks for being here.
Dennis Takahashi-Kelso: Well, thank you for inviting me, thank you very much.
Monica Trauzzi: Dennis, administration officials are testifying this week on the Hill about the federal government's response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf. The Minerals Management Service has already come under some scrutiny for its role leading up to the oil spill. What's your take on how MMS has handled oversight of the oil industry and should there be changes, regulatory changes?
Dennis Takahashi-Kelso: Let me answer the first part and then I feel very strongly about the second and the answer is, yes, there need to be fundamental changes. The Minerals Management Service has routinely acquiesced in what industry has assured it as to the safety of exploratory drilling and other activities on oil and gas leases. It has gone so far as to suggest that the possibility of a major spill from exploratory drilling is insignificant, and that's a quote, insignificant, and, therefore, have not even required that a major spill from exploration drilling facilities even being considered as part of its environmental assessment. An example of that right now is the proposed and close to being approved summer drilling in the Chukchi Sea in the U.S. Arctic, that is the decision by Minerals Management Service simply disregarded the possibility that a major spill could occur in exploration. The BP Deepwater Horizon spill is a spill from the exploration phase. So, it immediately suggests that Minerals Management Service has simply not scrutinized the proposals for drilling activities well enough and it underscores the need for a timeout right now on new drilling until we understand what went wrong with the Deepwater Horizon and how we can make sure that that kind of event does not happen again.
Monica Trauzzi: So, what kind of regulatory changes are we talking about here?
Dennis Takahashi-Kelso: I think we're talking about reining in the discretion of the Minerals Management Service by making changes in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Now, the president has expressed his frustration and I think that that is a frustration shared by many Americans. It certainly is what I was hearing from fishermen and seafood processors, local officials in Louisiana last week. And that is how could this risk be imposed on the American people without the kind of scrutiny that the Minerals Management Service is supposed to impose? So, the measures that the president and the secretary of the Interior have suggested, that is breaking up Minerals Management Service, acknowledge that the agency is deeply flawed, but we think that changes in the way the statute authorizes the use of discretion really need to be made.
Monica Trauzzi: So, how much of the blame relating to the spill lies with the federal government?
Dennis Takahashi-Kelso: I don't think we know the answer to that yet, because there hasn't been a full investigation. It is clear that the Minerals Management Service has the responsibility not only to duty leasing, but also to set the standards for performance and to impose conditions under which exploratory drilling and production and development go forward. So, it's clear where that responsibility lies. It is also clear that corners were cut, that no meaningful scrutiny was applied, so I think that part is quite clear. What happened in this particular accident is not yet fully understood and that has to be a threshold. Let's have an independent commission look at it, understand what went wrong, and propose specific steps to correct the problem so it doesn't occur in the future.
Monica Trauzzi: You're talking about an independent commission. Why don't you think the federal government can do the investigation or do a good job with the investigation?
Dennis Takahashi-Kelso: The federal government certainly has a role to play in examining certain parts in which they played a role in and laying out what they think the issues are. But, after all, this is a problem that arose under the watch of the Minerals Management Service and the Department of the Interior. So, in any other situation where there was a very serious breach of safety, we would expect the inquiry to be outside of the entity that was doing the oversight when the problem occurred. And this is a very serious problem, not only from an environmental standpoint, but because human lives were lost and we should take that as a very serious call to examine the whole thing and to examine it from a perspective that is broader than what the agencies would have.
Monica Trauzzi: You were the Alaska commissioner of Environmental Conservation at the time of the Exxon Valdez spill and you advocated for the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. There have been discussions in Congress about changing that law and increasing the cap for damages related to these types of spills. Do you think that should change and should it apply to the BP spill if a changes made to the law?
Dennis Takahashi-Kelso: The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was adopted in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill and there were some things that are similar, some things that are different between the Exxon Valdez spill and the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. But, in many ways, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which usually goes by the moniker of OPA 90, improved some of the authorities and this is separate from the liability portion. And I know you ask about liability and I'll say something very specific about that in a moment. But the ability of the Coast Guard to step in and direct this response, the strength and role for federal agencies, Coast Guard, NOAA, EPA, those authorities came from the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and that was a very useful addition to the authorities. But the problem with a liability cap is that it sets an unrealistically low level for a facility like this that appears to be $75 million. Now, that of course is far too small for this kind of a spill and even if BP is willing to exceed that and to pay compensation to fishermen and other communities that have been harmed, as well as the natural resources damage, it still is not good policy and that simply needs to be fixed. It needs to be brought up. It's one of those compromises that happened during the legislative process and it needs to be corrected.
Monica Trauzzi: And as the Alaskan environment commissioner you were involved with the environmental assessment that took place after the Exxon Valdez spill, so how do the two spills compare?
Dennis Takahashi-Kelso: There are some similarities, but there are also some sharp differences. The most important sharp difference is that the Exxon Valdez spill was a finite amount of oil. We knew that no more oil could spill than the tanker had on board. This spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, is a spill that no one knows how long it will continue or how much oil will actually be released. The other difference is that with the Exxon Valdez spill most of the oil was at the surface and many of the natural resources damages, harm to wildlife, harm to fisheries, harm to coastal environments and wetlands for example, was because oil moved on the surface and then hit those areas. This spill, in the Gulf of Mexico, is a three-dimensional toxic event, that is, for the first time that we know of, we have evidence of a deep water plume of oil particles or oil droplets and no one really knows what the effect of that will be, nor do we know the implications of dispersant chemicals applied to the oil at depth. It is often the case that dispersant chemicals are applied at the surface and the idea is there are trade-offs. There's no good solution here. There's no silver bullet and the trade-offs are tough because you're doing triage, but the idea has been it's good not to have oil come ashore because of the sensitivity of those estuaries and coastal marshes. And, in general, we've been willing to take the hit of breaking the oil up into small particles and suspending it in the water column because we thought that was less harmful. But, in this spill, the use of dispersants is in deep water and we don't yet know exactly what that interaction is, but we don't want to have an uncontrolled experiment here where ecosystems and the uses of fisheries that our communities depend upon are simply being tested with a method that is not really being evaluated. So, it's crucial that the agencies do the science, that they demand from BP both data and analysis, and that they make decisions about the use of dispersants and about what other techniques are used to actually take account of that and don't simply assume that because it's out of sight that's not having an effect. That is very unlikely. These are sensitive environments and, yes, the trade-offs are tough. We don't want it on shore in those coastal marshes, absolutely, but we also want to make wise decisions that we can live with down the line.
Monica Trauzzi: OK, we're going to end it there. Thank you for coming on the show.
Dennis Takahashi-Kelso: You're welcome.
Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
[End of Audio]