Reducing Oil Spills: How Strengthening NEPA Can Help

reducing oil spills: how strengthening nepa can help
Tugboats surround the Deepwater Horizon oil rig as they try to put out the fire from the explosion. Photo: Ideum,

Without critical environmental justice, fossil fuel companies will continue to put profit over people.

It’s hard to imagine an industry that has done more to drive inequality in our modern time than the fossil fuel industry. From creating pollution that harms critical ecosystems and makes people sick, to corruption and tax avoidance that has deprived countless nations of revenue, it’s clear oil companies have operated with damaging impunity for too long.

These companies constantly reap financial benefits for themselves at the cost of others, while several US oil players, including Exxon, Chevron, and Conoco, refuse to be transparent with investors and the public about the taxes they pay. Oil companies’ profits have hit record highs this year, even as they receive $10 to $50 billion annually in US federal subsidies paid for by taxpayers, and spend endless amounts of money lobbying so that they can continue making decisions that disproportionately impact women, communities of color, and people facing poverty.

When the Environment isn't Protected, People Get Hurt

In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, causing one of the biggest marine oil disasters in history. Eleven workers were killed, 17 were injured, and 134 million gallons of oil poured out from the site over the following 87 days. Countless ecosystems were destroyed and 22,000 jobs were lost in the fishing industry alone.

The Obama administration responded by halting drilling operations in the Gulf to provide time for evaluation, and created reforms to improve oil rig safety. Knowing that more had to be done, Oxfam provided support for restoration efforts through financial assistance and policy advocacy, including helping pass the RESTORE the Gulf Coast States Act so that the fines BP paid went directly back to restoring the Gulf. Now, 13 years later, spilled oil is still being found in marshlands along the coast of the Gulf and restoration efforts are still underway.

Despite what we learned from the BP oil spill, 150 oil spills still happen every year in the US. This is in large part because the Trump administration rolled back many of the safety protocols that were created in response to the BP oil spill, putting the profit of fossil fuel companies before the safety of the people and the environment.

Now fossil fuel interest groups are using their power to undermine the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a bedrock environmental law established in 1969. It ensures that marginalized communities have a say in the projects that impact them and that there’s sufficient public scrutiny given to projects that could have potentially devastating consequences. It also encourages the federal government to consider environmental impacts of projects and seek alternatives where necessary to protect the environment and climate.

If precautions laid out by NEPA had been properly applied, one of the worst environmental disasters in US history, the BP oil spill, could have been avoided. Unfortunately, a specially appointed National Commission found that BP’s exploration plans were not put through a meaningful NEPA review and, instead, were granted a “categorical exclusion.” This means that the potential impacts of an oil spill were severely downplayed.

Today, instead of recognizing the importance of our bedrock environmental laws in preventing environmental disasters, the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress are seeking to weaken NEPA so that fossil fuel projects avoid important reviews. It is critical that we learn from the past and fight to protect and strengthen NEPA while holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their actions. That way we can better prevent another devastating oil spill and the climate disasters that are still to come from continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Fighting For Change

Oxfam has made it a priority to protect and strengthen vital environmental laws that aim to support communities whose safety and health are being threatened in the US and around the world. At the end of 2022, when senators from both parties tried to gut NEPA while greenlighting fossil fuel projects through Sen. Manchin’s so-called “dirty deal”, Oxfam, alongside thousands of activists, successfully pushed back to make sure that deal didn’t go through. Together, we beat this deal three times, but there are those in Congress who are still working tirelessly on behalf of the fossil fuel companies to weaken NEPA instead of protect the people.

Oxfam is working to safeguard and strengthen NEPA by urging the Biden administration to take into consideration robust climate and gender impacts when developing projects and to ensure that communities have a say in the decisions that impact their health and safety. By pushing for strong environmental laws, we can take steps towards, not just preventing more oil spills, but also transition to a feminist, just energy infrastructure.

To help support our fight for just environmental laws, sign our petition to tell the Biden administration that NEPA must be protected and strengthened. Climate change will continue to wreak havoc if we do not take a stand against the fossil fuel industry and demand the care of our communities over corporate profits.

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