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Oil production must require spill preparation

Benjamin Franklin once said "by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." The images of oil billowing into the Gulf of Mexico certainly reinforce the wisdom of this statement.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil spill prevention and response has become the focus of our government at all levels, from the White House to Congress to the various federal agencies with jurisdiction over our energy reserves and environment.

It is critical that we make sure a tragedy like this never happens off our shores again. But we also need to be realistic. Oil will long be a part of our economy, and human error will always exist. But we can make sure that next time oil spills we have the tools necessary to stop the flow of oil and minimize the environmental and economic impact.

The oil and gas industry has poured money into developing technologies to find and produce oil and gas, but when I asked oil executives what research they have done to respond to and clean up oil spills, they admitted they have done little to none. Oil companies are not going to develop the technologies needed to clean up future oil spills on their own.

If we are going to allow oil companies to reap oil and profits off our shores, then our government needs to make sure they are also investing in updated, innovative, and effective technologies to clean up a spill, should one occur. And we know one will. While the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills have received significant attention, there have been dozens of other oil spills in the U.S. in the last decade.

That is why we need policies in place that make sure the oil industry is living up to their end of the bargain. I have introduced legislation to create a robust oil spill R&D program that focuses on the best technologies to respond to, contain, and clean up after a spill, large or small.

This effort would be fully paid for by the oil and gas industry that makes billions in profits, not the American taxpayer. It would create a dedicated funding source for this research and development that would come entirely from royalties, rent, and bonuses from domestic oil and gas producers. We currently allocate $50 million in oil revenues each year on R&D for oil and gas industry exploration and production, so we should make a comparable investment in oil spill prevention and clean up.

There is already cutting edge research being done at universities across the country, including right here in New Hampshire at UNH. In fact, Dr. Nancy Kinner, co-director of UNH's Coastal Response Research Center, is one of our nation's leading experts on oil spill response and clean up. She has twice been called to testify before Congress and offer her expertise as we develop oil spill prevention and response legislation. The research conducted at UNH and other academic institutions has been helpful, but we need to do more. My legislation supports this type research by federal agencies and at academic institutions so that we are better prepared for the next spill.

Any effective R&D program should also include an independent Scientific Advisory Board to identify gaps and prioritize the focus of the R&D program. And we need to make sure these scientists are heard loud and clear. Concerns raised by scientists about Deepwater Horizon were neglected by the promise of new oil production. We need to make certain that these expert voices are given as much weight as the oil company's bottom line.

I am pleased the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has already taken swift action to move my and other oil spill response legislation forward, and these efforts are being matched in the House of Representatives. Improving oil spill R&D is one important piece of broader efforts to respond to and clean up the BP disaster, hold BP and oil companies accountable for damages, and overhaul our government's oil industry oversight agencies.

None of these efforts will take the place of moving to a clean energy economy that will create jobs, reduce pollution and help lessen our dependence on oil. But our work to become energy efficient must be balanced with the understanding that oil will continue to play a significant energy and economic role in our nation for decades. That is why we need to prepare to respond to the dangers that come with oil production in order to prevent another catastrophic failure.

@Letters name:U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen

@Letters town:D-N.H.

Sen. Shaheen serves on the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.