EPA’s Jackson defends Gulf response at Aspen event
July 26, 2010
ASPEN – As speculation remains on whether the Obama administration and BP are properly handling the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Sunday in Aspen that the government has acted appropriately.
“I absolutely do” think the administration acted in the best way possible, said Lisa Jackson, the director of the EPA, responding to Tulane University President Scott Cowen.
Both were on a panel that attracted a full house in the Greenwald Pavilion on the first day of The Aspen Institute’s Environment Forum.
At the beginning of the crisis, BP didn’t even know that oil was leaking from the well, Jackson said.
But as news organizations slowly started reporting the full extent of the danger of the spill, she said the EPA realized it had to step into the fray of what is now the worst manmade environmental crisis in U.S. history.
“We are a guardpost,” Jackson said of the organization.
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The Obama administration has come under sharp criticism by right-wing pundits for not taking the helm of the cleanup effort sooner than it did.
Oil was pumping into the ocean for nine days before the administration publicly acknowledged the gravity of the spill.
Moving forward from the disaster after the massive cleanup, “preparedness” will be the most important consideration for oil companies and the government to prevent a similar disaster, Jackson said.
Fellow panelists Joel Bourne, an environmental reporter for National Geographic, and former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister readily agreed with that sentiment.
Bourne said the commonplace quality of oil disasters is the impetus for a vast knowledge of how spills work, but should also serve as incentive for government to impose stricter operating guidelines on the industry.
“We know a lot about oil spills because we’ve been spilling it pretty much since we started drilling,” Bourne said.
He stressed the catastrophic nature of the crises, not only on the environment, but on the industries that rely on a healthy ecosystem.
Especially in the case of the Gulf spill, Bourne said, its unclear how long it will take for the ecosystem to recover. He said oxygen is an integral component of recovery because it breaks down the chemical makeup of oil. In past oil spills, the surface of the water usually churns until the circulated oxygen depletes the oil.
But because of the low level of oxygen in deep places of the ocean, which until now were free from such a disaster, he said the oil in the Gulf will take longer than usual to disperse. He alluded that it could take multiple decades for the Gulf to return to normal.
“When you don’t have oxygen … it hangs around forever,” Bourne said.
And when that oil lingers, it continues killing the ecosystem, which has the double effect of killing the economies that rely on it – like the robust seafood industry that supplies the Gulf Coast with much of its livelihood. Still, though, most people turn a blind eye after a few short months, Bourne said.
“The public – the American public, especially – has a very short attention span,” he said. “As soon as they don’t see oil, it’s all good.”
Hofmeister agreed that there should be a high level of government oversight of the oil industry, but said Shell, which produces 400,000 barrels of oil a day and supplies 170,000 people with jobs, already complies with its own rigorous safety guidelines.
“I think the standards we operate by in the Gulf of Mexico would be in concert with the regulations that are becoming,” he said in response to an audience member’s question.
Jackson told the audience that the only way to fix the problem is to gradually wean the United States from its fossil-fuel addiction. The nation should replace that reliance with clean energy and, in the meantime, impose strict, enforceable guidelines on oil companies to hold them accountable to those rules, she said.
For that to happen, though, the private sector must jump on board, Jackson said.
“There’s only so much public-sector investment that we can do,” she said before expressing confidence that the private sector will follow through with that call to accountability.