Cantwell Chairs Hearing on Urgent Need to Improve Oil Spill Response Technologies to Protect Puget Sound, America's Coasts

Urges Congress to act to get innovative oil spill technology into response plans and stimulate further research

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said that existing oil spill response plans rely on outdated technologies and that new policies are needed to spur investment and  incorporate new technologies into response plans. Cantwell chaired a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard today following up on her introduction ofa bill to require the oil industry to continually integrate the latest technologies into oil spill response plans. Cantwell’s legislation is moving toward full Senate consideration as part of Commerce Committee Chairman Senator Jay Rockefeller’s SHORE (Securing Health for Ocean Resources and Environment) Act. The bill is scheduled to be marked up by the full committee on Thursday, July 22.
Cantwell said at today’s hearing that spill response technologies have changed little between the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and the Deepwater Horizon disaster this year in the Gulf of Mexico. According to a 2009 assessment of Washington state’s oil spill response capabilities, spill response technologies in current operation could only capture, at most, around 40 percent of spilled oil in the first 48 hours.
“The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has revealed a huge disparity between our nation’s ability to extract oil versus our ability to respond to an oil spill,” Senator Cantwell said. “Our primary response technologies – skimmers, in situ burns, boom and chemical dispersants – were all developed decades ago, while exploration and drilling technology has advanced at a rapid pace due to heavy investment by the oil and gas industry. There is much more we can do to improve oil spill response, beginning with jump-starting oil spill technology research and development. Deepwater Horizon isn’t a Gulf of Mexico tragedy; it’s an American tragedy. And it is up to us to ensure that America’s waters and shores are protected with the best technology available.”
Cantwell’s Oil Spill Technology and Research Act, introduced July 15, is designed to address the massive gap in oil spill research and development that has contributed to industry’s inability to respond to the BP oil spill. Cantwell’s bill, which is included in the SHORE Act, will:
  1. Establish a Federal Oil Spill Research Committee: chaired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Coast Guard, and other federal agencies to coordinate efforts across the federal government and force a government plan and action on this issue.
  1. Create a comprehensive oil spill R&D program: designed to conduct oil pollution research, technology development and demonstration among the federal agencies, in cooperation and coordination with industry, universities, research institutions, state governments, and tribal governments.
  1. Create an oil spill R&D grants program: competitive grants to universities or other research institutions for oil spill research and technology development and meeting the purposes of the newly-established federal R&D program.
  1. Require spill response plans to be updated every five years to include the best available technology: giving the Coast Guard the authority to establish requirements and issue guidance on what constitutes ‘best available technology,’ in the same manner that EPA sets such standards under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Safe Water Drinking Act.
  1. Create a Coast Guard process for the formal evaluation and validation of new spill technologies: directing the development of a program where new methods and technologies can be formally submitted, evaluated and gain validation for use in oil spill responses and inclusion in response plans.
 Several promising technologies and techniques exist but the oil industry has failed to seize their potential, Cantwell said. Among the promising technologies are oil solidifiers, new remediation techniques for breaking down spilled oil, and absorbent fiber membranes. Dr. Fritz Stahr of the University of Washington testified at the hearing about Sea Glider technology that he developed for under-water scientific monitoring. Dr. Stahr said, with further development, this tool could be used to detect and analyze underwater oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico that would fill a current void in underwater oil detection. Also testifying was Dennis Yellowhorse Jones, a geologist and entrepreneur who has developed an “organic” remediation method for breaking down oil using a unique mineral compound. Mr. Jones said this technique has primarily been used to remediate contaminated soils and could be used to help clean the Gulf’s shorelines. Mr. Jones said his company is “ready, willing and able” to implement what he calls a “simple solution for a complex problem.”
Cantwell has been calling for spill prevention and coastal protection legislation since long before the Deepwater Horizon spill. For more than three years, Cantwell has been working to enact a U.S. Coast Guard authorization bill that passed the Senate May 7 without opposition. The bill, which is awaiting final House-Senate approval, includes Cantwell authored provisions that would significantly enhance oil spill response and prevention in Puget Sound and on America’s coasts. Cantwell also had an amendment added to the Outer Continental Shelf Reform Act of 2010 that significantly improves oversight and safety of offshore oil drilling rigs by filling a gap in current regulatory policy.
Watch a video of Cantwell’s opening statement and her Q&A at today’s hearing.
High quality audio, video and photo are available upon request.