Snap judgment at oil spill hearing could lead to disaster of its own

Rep. Michael Burgess Congressman, Texas 26th District
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Last Friday I traveled to the Gulf Coast area affected by the oil spill caused by the April 20 explosion on the ultra-deep-water exploratory oil rig, Deepwater Horizon. The most dreadful consequence of this tragedy is the loss of life—of the 126 men and women on board the rig, 11 perished. Oil is now leaking into the Gulf at rates currently estimated at 5,000 barrels per day, and thousands of men and women have been working around the clock to get the spill under control.

While in Louisiana, our delegation received a briefing from Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry at Unified Area Command, and we also met with representatives from the Department of the Interior, Minerals Management Service (MMS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, local officials, affected industries and response teams.

What was most readily apparent was the seamless cooperation between all of the entities involved, including BP. While many politicians in Washington have turned this tragedy into an opportunity to push their own agendas, the men and women directly involved with the situation are working collaboratively to correct the problem and protect their communities and the environment.

Today the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations (O&I), of which I am the ranking member, will hold a hearing to look into the cause of the explosion and subsequent spill. While I believe in strong oversight—it is one of the most basic responsibilities of government—I can’t help but wonder if this hearing was called prematurely.

The cause of the explosion is not yet known, as well as other critical information, such as why there was a leak in the pipe and why the blowout preventer did not work. Furthermore, a substantial number of questions remain as to the federal government’s role in the explosion. The Department of Interior’s MMS is responsible for permitting, regulating, and inspecting oil rigs, like the Deepwater Horizon, operating in federal waters. Reports suggest the MMS inspected the rig as recently as April 1, finding no safety violations.

For these reasons, I requested that Interior Secretary Salazar accompany the oil executives and explain to Congress what his agency’s role in federal permitting and inspecting is, and how a rig with zero violations could fall to the Gulf floor less than one month later. At past O&I subcommittee hearings concerning Toyota and crib safety, Members had the opportunity to ask questions of the federal official from the agency of jurisdiction, and I don’t see why today’s hearing should be any different.

While I look forward to questioning the company executives on their preparation for ultra-deep-water oil exploration, I want to also caution against making sweeping judgments and rushing to unrealistic conclusions about what America’s future energy policies should be, in light of this tragedy. Congress has a long history of overreacting to public tragedies with hasty legislation that—months or years later—we realize has unintended consequences (the latest health care reform law will no doubt fall into this category).

For over 50 years, offshore drilling in the Gulf has been a well-engineered operation, with a remarkably good record overall, until this spill. In recent years, the bulk of new production has come from deep-sea operations, with exploratory and production wells developed at depths equal to or substantially greater than the 5,000 foot depth of the Deepwater Horizon—all without serious incidents.

Some Members have suggested that they will push more forcefully for divisive, ideological energy policies such as cap-and-trade, which Americans have already soundly rejected. I, like my Republican colleagues, have long supported an “all-of the above” energy strategy.

Our economy will require oil and gas—Americans consume 20 million barrels of oil a day—as well as clean energy, such as natural gas and wind, for decades to come. We have the resources right here at home to provide the bulk of that energy, rather than import it from unstable and unfriendly regions of the world, but we cannot take certain energy sources off the table because of the Deepwater Horizon incident, like some have suggested.

Obviously, we must be vigilant in achieving the correct balance of energy production and environmental protection and human safety. Tragedies such as this one underscore that importance. But not letting a crisis go to waste, as some would say, is no more a solution than hiding our heads in the sand and pretending this type of ultra-deep-water exploration can’t be dangerous. America can produce our own energy resources—oil, natural gas, wind, and nuclear power, to name a few—in a way that minimizes risks.

This is why we must get answers to the lingering question of what caused the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and be smart with future exploration, so that we do all we can to ensure that an event like this never happens again. But we must also be smart moving forward with energy legislation in light of this tragedy, because many times, even with the best intentions, Congress can do more harm than good.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess, M.D., is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the top Republican on the Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations. He is also a member of the Energy & Environment subcommittee. Prior to becoming a member of Congress in 2002, Burgess practiced medicine in North Texas for over 25 years.