Marco Werman speaks with Steve Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, about the issue of accountability for oil spills around the world.
Read the Transcript
This text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI’s THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to firstname.lastname@example.org. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI’s THE WORLD is the program audio.
MARCO WERMAN: It took 25 years for anyone to be held legally responsible for the poisonous gas leak in Bhopal. President Obama has said that BP is already legally responsible for the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Still, exactly who is accountable for environmental disasters is frequently unclear. Steve Cohen is executive director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. Now there’s been a lot of talk about what BP may or may not be responsible for when it comes to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Compared to other parts of the world, how typical is this talk of responsibility and the level of accountability BP and the U.S. government are facing for this accident?
STEVE COHEN: Well, I think that there is no question that at least in the United States, the system of law, particularly after a disaster, seems to be pretty aggressive. But I think the real game that should be played and how do you prevent these things in the first place? Once these things take place, in a sense you can’t compensate for some of the damages. And some of these damages will never be cleaned up.
WERMAN: So how do you stop these things from happening in the first place?
COHEN: Well the first thing is you need regulation and inspection that is much more aggressive than the kind of thing we’re seeing now. The fact is that the Department of Interior both makes money off of selling leases, and then has to police the oil rigs themselves and that’s a ridiculous scenario. The Department of Interior is essentially a wholly owned subsidiary of the extraction industries and so we need a regulatory body that is going to take this issue seriously.
WERMAN: Is the U.S. better or worse than most countries at having a regulatory body that takes these things seriously?
COHEN: Well it’s better than some countries. I think the Northern Europeans are a little bit better than we are, but I think that the real question for us with this Gulf disaster is, if we don’t have the technology to prevent a catastrophe or to respond to a catastrophe what are we doing drilling for oil in those places in the first place?
WERMAN: So do you think this current spill in the Gulf is a game changer when it comes to regulation and accountability?
COHEN: I hope so. I think it will be because I think that unlike Exxon Valdez, this is closer to the major media markets, its something that can’t be avoided and also it’s going on for months and months and is affecting coastal towns and so forth and I think this is going to be, probably it will go down in history as the worst environmental disaster that America has ever had.
WERMAN: Is it the length of the disaster thus far that you think will make it a game changer? Because in the media it’s very similar to what we saw with the Exxon Valdez spill.
COHEN: Well, actually it starts look more like the Iran hostage crisis. It just goes on and on and on. And you keep looking at cable news and the little corner shows the oil constantly leaking. I think that that’s one part of it. But the other part is that the amount of damage and the amount of oil is unprecedented.
WERMAN: In some parts of the world its private companies that drill for oil and in other places its state run oil companies. Is there any viable model for creating global safety standards that could be adhered to by everybody, regardless of country or business that’s drilling for oil?
COHEN: Well, for better or worse right now, sovereign states are still the places where power really exists and as long as we do have nation states as the place where the action is, that’s going to have to be where the regulation comes from. And I think that places like the United States have to play a leadership role. We have to get much more serious about it. It calls out for much more intense inspections, and regulation and enforcement. The economy has gotten very complicated, the environment is fragile, we have almost seven billion people on the planet. We’ve got to get more sophisticated in our management because the other thing that people need to be thinking about here is that we need this energy. The economies of the world require it and so it’s not like you can suddenly stop all the oil drillings going on in the world. It would start a worldwide depression, it would start the fourth world war, I mean you wouldn’t want to see it. So the question is how do we get the resources we need transferred to a fossil fuel free economy and do that in a way that keeps the planet in tact and that’s the real issue that we have to be focused on.
WERMAN: Steve Cohen, the executive director of Columbia’s University’s Earth Institute, thank you very much.
COHEN: Thank you.
Copyright ©2009 PRI’s THE WORLD. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to PRI’s THE WORLD. This transcript may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission. For further information, please email The World’s Permissions Coordinator at email@example.com.