April was a tough month for 17-term Congressman Nick Rahall. First, a coal mine outside his hometown of Beckley, W.V., collapsed, killing 29 miners including some Rahall knew personally. Then, 10 days later, the BP's Deepwater Horizon well off the Louisiana coast blew, killing 11 rig workers and spewing hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was one of the deadliest months in decades for America's plumbing of its natural resources, and in the eyes of Rahall, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, much of the human and environmental toll was tragically preventable.
Though he joined the committee to work on mining issues and has been instrumental in passing several mine-safety laws the lack of regulation of another area under the committee's jurisdiction long ago drew Rahall's attention: offshore drilling. For years, Rahall has warned of the dangerous conflicts of interest that existed within the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the federal agency that oversees the exploration of the country's natural resources; his committee has had sole oversight of the MMS and the outer continental shelf.
Since becoming chairman in 2006, when Democrats took over Congress, Rahall has held more than 30 hearings on offshore drilling and introduced half a dozen bills to overhaul the MMS or disband it altogether. Though three of them passed the House, they all died in the Senate, where Rahall's warnings fell mostly on deaf ears of Republicans and Democrats alike. "I was a lone voice out there, and that, of course, is hard to grab the attention of the ones that can really make a difference," Rahall says. "So it's unfortunate that it takes a disaster of this scale to draw their attention now."
Rahall's cynosure, he admits, has been not the rigs' safety issues but the overall dysfunction of the MMS. The Consolidated Land, Energy and Aquatic Resources (CLEAR) Act he introduced last year would have broken up the MMS, much along the lines that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar divided up the MMS earlier this month in the wake of the oil spill. Rahall worried that it was a gross conflict for the agency to be charged with both selling and collecting fees on leases and enforcing safety on the rigs. The sales arm, as reported in a series of Inspector General reports, consistently downplayed safety and relied on the oil and gas companies to report how much they owed in fees. One IG report estimated that lax MMS oversight has cost U.S. taxpayers $54 billion in fees revenue that constitutes the second largest source of funds for the U.S. government after taxes.
"Chairman Nick Rahall has been a relentless leader for years on the issues of worker safety and royalty reform," says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "He brings to the Congress a combination of independent thinking and legislative savvy that he uses to ensure the responsible management of the public's resources and represent his constituents."
Pelosi mentioned the CLEAR Act two weeks ago as a bill that could pass in July in response to the Deepwater Horizon crisis. In preparation for that possibility, Rahall has updated the measure. He has expanded it to included tightened safety standards to qualify for leases and on rigs once drilling begins. His bill would also beef up independent certifications like engineering reviews and would require detailed worst-case-scenario studies in which companies would have to have contingency plans and equipment in place in case of a blowout. "Whether it is a coal miner in West Virginia or an oil-rig worker in the Gulf of Mexico, I believe that no one should have to risk their life to secure their livelihood," Rahall says. Nevertheless, he believes it's important to get drilling back up and running as quickly as possible. "Just as the Massey [mine] disaster does not signal the end of all coal mining in the U.S., in my opinion the Deepwater Horizon spill does not signify the end of all offshore oil and drilling."