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U.S. needs plan in place for oil disasters

By Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, Special to CNN
  • Mahlon C. Kennicutt II: Oil spills happen every 20 years or so in U.S. waters
  • Each time, reactions are predictable; spill initially is minor, then becomes major, he says
  • Kennicutt: Next, finger-pointing begins, with government blamed, treatments debated
  • Kennicutt: Is this the best we can do? U.S. needs realistic response plan before a spill

Editor's note: Mahlon C. Kennicutt II is a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University and president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. He is a consultant for TDI-Brooks International, which is doing chemistry analyses for the damage assessment of the Gulf of Mexico spill and which does work for the oil industry; Kennicutt is not working on spill issues but might in the future.

(CNN) -- If the debate and blame game under way concerning the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico sounds familiar, that's because it has happened many times before.

The stakes in events such as this are high for all -- politicians, government agencies, private sector companies, the response firms that stand to make millions, the innocent bystanders whose livings are put at risk, and all people who value our natural resources.

Each time oil is spilled into the environment, we seem to debate anew how bad it is or how bad it might get, why such a systemic failure happened, who bears responsibility for the damage, and what is the best way to respond. This is mostly because of politicians' and the public's short attention span -- once a spill is off the front page it is no longer of general interest -- and the lack of historical perspective that might inform the debate.

In U.S. waters, spills of this size happen about once every 20 years or so. Every oil spill has its own characteristics: the quality of the oil, how much was spilled over what length of time, the exposed environments that are most at risk, how natural processes will either exacerbate or mitigate effects, and even what time of year it happened.

But the reactions follow a pattern. The first pronouncements are that the spill is minor and can be quickly controlled.

Next, estimates of the severity of the spill gradually increase and opinions vary widely depending on the perspective of the assessor.

As the public outcry increases, the maneuvering to spread the liability for potential damage begins. Because these operations are almost always complex industrial partnerships, there are plenty of entities to blame.

We are only at the early stages of this 'kabuki' theater as the Gulf of Mexico oil is still leaking.
--Mahlon C. Kennicutt II
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The government is seen as not merely complacent but is perceived to be in collusion with the energy industry. Regulators and agencies responsible for policing the industry and assessing natural resource damage enter the debate. This setting is ripe for politicians to grandstand, getting their 15 minutes of fame on the nightly news. The more indignant and irate they become, the more attention they get.

In parallel, the response effort gathers momentum, and a secondary debate begins over what is the best response -- skimming, dispersants, burning, bioremediation. The sad truth is that our attempts to clean up after a major spill, once the size of the release approaches millions of gallons, have little effect. However, to decide to take no action is politically unacceptable, even if it might be the least damaging solution.

Thus begins the expenditure of millions of dollars in response with little measurable change in outcome -- in fact, some responses can cause more damage than just leaving the spill alone.

At some point, the response is all but forgotten, and the years of litigation begin. Few injured parties ever receive what they believe is just; companies believe they have been sufficiently punished, and begrudgingly they pass these costs on to consumers who are none the wiser.

Does this sound familiar?

We are only at the early stages of this "kabuki" theater as the Gulf of Mexico oil is still leaking, response has just begun, lawyers are circling the region in search of clients, blame for the Deepwater Horizon spill is still being passed around, and politicians and regulators have only just begun to saturate the airwaves.

In the meantime, the insult to the environment continues and grows, estimates of long-term damage are speculative at best, and, in this case, the oil is just beginning to come ashore. In a technologically advanced and scientifically savvy society, is this the best we can do?

A long-term strategy for such disasters and a response to them should already be in place, liability should be assigned before the drill bit hits the seafloor, formulas for calculating natural resource damage agreed, an endowment set aside for response and damage claims provided by a tax on oil and gas production, and a response procedure for a government-private sector partnership should be poised to react within hours, not days.

Although it is difficult to prove after the fact, surely ecological and economic damage would be minimized by a realistic response, supported by sound methodologies, technologies and scientific foundations. Unfortunately, in 10 to 20 years, when the next accident happens, this op-ed could most likely be rerun with few changes.

Isn't it time the entire risk and reward of exploration and exploitation be fully taken into consideration in the cost of the fossil fuel recovered?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mahlon C. Kennicutt II.