2010-08-12 / News

‘Complacency’ to blame for oil spill, says island expert

By Sam Bari

Dennis Nixon Photo by Sam Bari Dennis Nixon Photo by Sam Bari Islander Dennis Nixon, an authority on maritime law, recently spoke about an issue that has troubled Americans for the past 3.5 months – the Deepwater Horizon, British Petroleum oil spill on April 20.

Nixon was recently appointed to the position of interim associate dean for research and administration of the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. He is also an expert in marine law and the law of the sea.

When asked why the disaster happened, Nixon said, “It really was a stunning failure. We were complacent because we didn’t think we had a problem.”

“We,” being the oil industry and the government agencies that regulate it.

He said that 2002 research from the National Academy of Sciences tells us that 63% of oil going into the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of California comes from natural seepage.

Outer continental shelf drilling activities accounted for only 2% of all the oil going into U.S. waters – including drilling and the pipeline. This was the same percentage that came from recreational boating.

According to Nixon, “We were really bad at polluting in the 1970s. The ‘70s accounted for 55% of all the oil that’s gone into the oceans for the past 40 years. By the ‘80s, that figure fell to about 23%.”

He also said that the oil pollution act of 1990 was passed in response to the Exxon Valdez spill. That dramatically reduced the figure of oil going into the oceans during the past 40 years to 4%.

“Then we got lazy and complacent until 2010 when the BP disaster revealed that our complacency was obvious and real,” Nixon said.

As far as the costs are concerned, Nixon said that clean-up costs could be around $10 billion, with as much as $3.5 billion in penalties and fines.

Add another $10 billion in compensatory damages, and don’t forget about a fourth category – punitive damages, Nixon said. Those could equal the compensatory damages if the courts feel that BP’s transgressions were so egregious that they want to punish the company.

The total could be around $34 billion, compared to the $4 billion cost of the Exxon Valdez disaster.

“For the future, I have a lot of confidence in the commission that was appointed by the president,” Nixon said. “I think they are going to recommend some much tougher regulatory requirements to allow deepwater drilling to continue.”

He went on to say, “I do not favor a ban on offshore drilling. If we don’t use some of the resources we have in U.S. waters, we’re going to be forced to send more money to places in the Middle East that don’t like us very much.”

Nixon said that the knowledge was there to drill safely, but “We got complacent and lazy, and put more emphasis on production and efficiency than we did on safety.”

He does not blame any one person or organization for the disaster. He said that we should all share in the responsibility, including everyone who is driving a car.

“There were some warning signs before the blowout that were ignored. And the people responsible for that should be punished,” Nixon said. “However, the culture that drove us to this disaster is one that we all participated in.”

Nixon said that he remains optimistic.

“We have to be optimistic,” he said. “We won’t eliminate all of the oil leaking into the oceans, but I know we can do this better.”

Besides his recent appointment as interim associate dean at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, Nixon is a well-published lawyer. He is the U.S. authority on international oceanographic research vessel laws.

This fall, the second edition of “Marine and Coastal Law,” a book Nixon authored, will be published and available at amazon.com.

In his position as associate dean, Nixon took over for Dr. Kate Moran, who went to work for the White House as an environmental advisor to help with climate change issues and the oil spill.

In addition to his academic accomplishments, Nixon is a dedicated athlete, having participated in four triathlons in which he placed fourth or better.

Last month, he completed his 11th Save the Bay swim from Newport to Jamestown.

Nixon is also an avid sailboat racer. His J-29 sloop, Lynx, has – for the last two years – won the overall series championship at the Jamestown Yacht Club.

Born in Detroit, Mich., Nixon spent seven years in Cincinnati, where he earned a law degree in 1975. Continuing his education at URI, he earned a master of marine affairs degree in 1976.

He is the proud father of two daughters. Sarah, 26, works for Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. This fall, she will return to Georgetown University to attend graduate school, where she will study public policy.

Marisa recently graduated summa cum laude from URI and earned a degree in environmental economics.

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