Making oil company CEOs responsible

August 12, 2010

The Baltimore Sun editorial "Relief in the gulf" (Aug. 9) underscores the need to learn from the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by making intelligent reforms to our offshore oil and gas drilling policies.

There is no question that better regulation of offshore drilling operations is required. I supported reform legislation recently passed in the House of Representatives to strengthen oil rig safety by requiring demonstrations and independent certifications of critical equipment; higher standards for rig inspectors and increased inspections; stiffer penalties for safety violations; and an end to the practice of waiving important environmental review of drilling plans.

But as we investigated the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Committee on Natural Resources, the evidence showed that BP ignored their responsibilities for safety and spill response preparedness even under current law. I was particularly troubled by the glaring inaccuracies and misstatements made by BP in its supposed oil spill response plan. The plan listed a wildlife expert that had been deceased since 2005 and said that sensitive biological resources in the Gulf included walruses, sea otters, sea lions and seals, none of which actually live there. BP also claimed that their plan could handle a worst case oil spill scenario many times larger than this recent disaster.

The leaders of these powerful corporations must be held to a higher standard. That is why I authored amendments to the drilling reform legislation to make the CEO at each oil company directly responsible for certifying the safety and adequacy of their drilling and spill response plans. The CEO is then subject to individual civil penalties if he or she files a false certification or their company fails to develop or maintain the capabilities included in their response plans. This requirement and the potential penalties should result in "self-correcting behavior," forcing CEOs to take this process seriously and making it significantly less likely that companies submit inferior or faulty plans.

Responsible CEOs will recognize this new requirement for what it is – a very basic standard that should be a best practice for responsible companies anyway. But for those who try to cut corners, this new framework will certainly give them pause because there will be real consequences for them personally, not just their shareholders.

John Sarbanes, Baltimore

The writer is a Democratic congressman who represents the Third District of Maryland.

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