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Gulf Spill Surpasses Exxon Valdez Spill as Worst in U.S. History

May 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama called the Gulf Coast spill an "unprecedented disaster" as estimates for the leaking oil surpassed the Exxon Valdez spill, making it the worst oil eco-disaster in U.S. history. Judy Woodruff gets two points of view on the scale of the disaster and the adequacy of the response.

JIM LEHRER: And to Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For a response to the president’s words and actions today, we turn to John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group, and Frances Beinecke. She’s president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group.

Thank you both for joining us.

John Felmy, to you first.

The president’s overriding message today was that the federal government, he said, has been and is in charge of this response to this spill. And he said that’s been the case from the very beginning. Is that — what’s your reaction to that?

JOHN FELMY, chief economist, American Petroleum Institute: Well, I think there’s no question that’s what’s going on. We have a concerted effort that is being marshaled by the appropriate agencies. And they are clearly involved.

We have got, of course, BP as a responsible party and being heavily involved, but it’s broader than that in terms of industries. So, I would accept that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he said that BP is operating at the government’s direction.

JOHN FELMY: That’s my understanding in terms of everything that I have heard, that basically — of course, they’re supplying resources, but, nevertheless, it’s under the direction of the unified command.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Frances Beinecke, again, the comment that BP is acting at the government’s direction, and he said this has been “my — my highest priority from the very first day.”

FRANCES BEINECKE, president, Natural Resources Defense Council: Well, I think that the president obviously today took charge of the situation and communicated that to the public.

I was down in the Gulf two weeks ago, and I can tell you that, you know, the sense was that BP was calling a lot of the shots. I’m glad that the president clarified that today, that it’s really coming from the federal government. It needs to come from the federal government. And although BP is the responsible party, we have to depend on the government to protect our resources, restore the environment down there, and restore the livelihoods, because so many people have lost their jobs in the fishing industry.

It’s really a catastrophe that the government has to be the responsible party for and hold BP accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But were you surprised — based on what you had seen, were you surprised to hear him say that today?

FRANCES BEINECKE: I wasn’t surprised to hear him say it, but I was relieved to hear him say it, because I think that the — until you go there, you can’t appreciate either the scale of it or the human impact, going out with the oystermen, with the shrimpers, the uncertainty of their future how long these fisheries are going to be closed, whether the marine environment is going to recover, whether it’s in the wetlands or out in the ocean.

This is a catastrophe of the largest dimension that we have ever seen. And the reality is nobody knows what it’s going to take to recover from this, and it’s truly devastating to the environment and to the people who depend on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Felmy, the president was very critical of what he called the scandalously — scandalously close relationship between big oil and the government regulators, the agencies that are supposed to regulate them.

Is he right about that?

JOHN FELMY: Well, I think the nature of these operations, particularly these very complex deepwater operations, offshore operations in general, require a close working relationship between the regulator and the industry.

But it’s got to be an ethical one. So, going forward, that’s clearly our position.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Has it been less than ethical? Has it been unethical?

JOHN FELMY: Well, the reports clearly call into question some actions on the part of the folks involved, so I will leave it to the report, in terms of what they said.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Frances Beinecke, what would you say about that?

FRANCES BEINECKE: Well, I think that, you know, I have worked on offshore oil issues for actually several decades.

And I think the relationship between MMS and the industry has been — cozy would be I think, a kind term. I think that the recommendations that are coming out to separate the regulators and to ensure that there’s adequate environmental oversight are absolutely critical.

If we have learned anything from this, it’s that we need to completely reform the relationship between the oil industry and the regulatory authorities. And the independent commission that the president announced last Friday is a crucial step to ensuring that that happens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Felmy, the president also announced several new steps to deal with the aftermath of this, including he — he talked about a moratorium on offshore deepwater drilling permits for six months. He spoke about suspending the planned exploration of drilling off the coast of Alaska and Virginia. And then he mentioned 33 different deepwater exploratory wells under way in the Gulf of Mexico.

What do you — speaking for the oil industry, what’s your take on that?

JOHN FELMY: Well, right now, our perspective is that, first of all, we have got to stop the leak. That’s got to be the first priority, clean it up. And then we do need some time to be able to assess what happened, what went wrong, so we don’t see a repeat of this incident.

So, some time is appropriate. But, remember, there’s economic consequences to delaying things. We rely on oil significantly. And it means jobs, government revenue, energy security, and improved trade situations. So, we have got to bring that into account in terms of whatever actions you take.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you — but these steps, you’re saying you believe your industry — your organization believes are appropriate steps?

JOHN FELMY: Well, at this point, we just want to be very careful, because there’s economic consequences to everything. And if this turns into, you know, something ill-defined, and not really carefully kind of defined, you know, we’re — we’re concerned about that, of course.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Frances Beinecke, from the perspective of the National Resources Defense Council, how do you view this?

FRANCES BEINECKE: Well, we thought it was an important step in the right direction. We and many in the environmental community have been urging the Interior Department, literally for years, to not proceed with the leases in offshore Alaska.

The offshore Alaska environment is incredibly fragile, very difficult. If you look at the spill which is in the Gulf of Mexico, where the entire oil and gas industry is deployed, and yet it’s taken over 35 days to try to get control of it, imagine what would happen in the frozen, fragile environment of offshore Alaska.

So, we’re very pleased about that. It allows time to really understand what the implications of operating up there are, and ,also, you know, in the Western Gulf and Virginia and in the deepwater environment. I mean, there is a lot to learn here, and we have to be sure that the pristine and fragile areas of our coasts, which create abundant resources as well in the fisheries and — area, are protected adequately.

And, you know, right now, what we’re looking at is that they’re not. So, as I mentioned before, this independent commission is absolutely critical before there can be any steps ahead. And I would say that some of these very fragile areas should never be drilled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What more, John Felmy, needs to be done by the administration at this point, do you think?

JOHN FELMY: Well, I think, going forward, the most important thing is that we have got to understand what happened.

I think that it’s clear that we’re going to need oil for the foreseeable future. We’re going to need a lot of different energy and so on, and so, stepping forward, if we can use this opportunity to be able to really understand what our needs are and what the appropriate actions are.

You know, we have 250 million cars and trucks on the road that run on oil. And they’re going to run for a very long time. And, so, we’re going to need oil in this country. And, if we can produce it responsibly here, there’s a significant economic benefit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I hear you bringing the word the economy, jobs, into the discussion at several points over the last few minutes.

JOHN FELMY: Well, that’s right. We need jobs right now. We need good-paying jobs. And the offshore industry has a lot of jobs, up to 200,000, that are supported.

And, so, we have got to be cognizant of that, in terms of how important they are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, Frances Beinecke, from your perspective, what more needs to be done?

FRANCES BEINECKE: Well, I think that this is an opportunity to really focus all of this country on what our oil addiction is. And I think John’s absolutely right. We have 250 million cars on the road.

What the president really focused on, in addition to the spill itself, was the need to get on a clean-energy pathway, to get Congress to consider legislation that they now have in front of them, the American Power Act, to take us down that clean-energy pathway that would result in better public transportation systems, more efficient cars, alternative fuels, things that will reduce the demand on oil.

The reason we’re out there drilling at 5,000 feet is because of this voracious demand we have. And if we’re not able to check that, you know, this is going to be a problem in the future. So, creating a clean-energy future and developing the policies that allow us to do that is just in a very important moment for this country. Many of us have been working on that for decade. And now is the point in time to actually get it done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Frances Beinecke, John Felmy, thank you both.