Op-Ed: Oil reform must include citizen advisory committee

This Op-Ed was published in the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun Herald on July 30, 2010.

It is only fair that Gulf Coast residents should get the same chance to shape the future of oil and gas development in our region that Alaskans did following the Exxon Valdez spill. Unfortunately, citizens’ councils that have proved effective in guiding responsible development in Alaska are not part of a Gulf of Mexico drilling bill now before Congress. They should be.

These councils were among the reforms Congress passed after the 1989 spill that fouled Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and they gave residents and businesses there a say in how development should proceed in their region.
Now, over 20 years later and following a far larger environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, Congress is again on the verge of enacting a much needed suite of reforms.

But a version of the bill being considered by the House of Representatives this week does not include the councils, which would be made up of fishers, charter boat operators, local officials, indigenous peoples, and others in the five Gulf states that have had their lives upended by BP’s drilling disaster.

That’s why a coalition of over one hundred faith, community and conservation groups, from Texas to Florida, is calling on congressional leaders to make sure a Gulf of Mexico Independent Regional Citizens’ Advisory Committee is part of any drilling reform bill.

These organizations, including fourteen in Mississippi, agree that such a council is the best insurance policy any of us could devise to ensure that this type of incident never happens again in the Gulf of Mexico and that exploration, development and production will be able to be carried out safely into the future.

The councils have a proven track record in Alaska, not only in advocating for responsible oil development and transportation, but also in improving communication and trust between local communities, the federal government and the energy industry.

“Those with the most to lose from pollution must have a voice in decisions that put their livelihoods and communities at risk,” Mark Swanson, executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council, said following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, which killed 11 people.

“In Prince William Sound, the citizen voice has been crucial in numerous safety improvements since the Exxon spill, from double-hull requirements to the adoption of high-performance escort tugs to the development of iceberg detection technology, and even elimination of the release of toxic benzene vapors when tankers load oil,” Swanson said.

As an advisory body, its effectiveness would come from the quality of its research, assessments and recommendations, and the collective wisdom of the citizens of the region who have been most dramatically impacted by the BP deepwater disaster and have the most at stake in preventing something similar in the future.

As Washington considers these and other reforms, Mississippi’s congressional delegation should stand firmly in support of this commonsense and cost-effective way of protecting our coasts, communities, and environments. The authorization of such a regional oversight council in the Gulf is the quickest way to restore the confidence of the American people in Gulf oil and gas operations.

It’s worked that way in Alaska, and the Gulf Coast should have the chance to make it work here too.

RALEIGH HOKE is the Mississippi Organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network, a diverse network of local, regional, and national groups and individuals dedicated to protecting and restoring the valuable resources of the Gulf of Mexico. GRN has members in the five Gulf States of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. More information at www.healthygulf.org.

The opinions expressed on this Web site 

represent those of individual authors and

do not necessarily represent the views of 

Bridge the Gulf, its partners or funders.