InterviewOil spill confounds US chem legislative reform - SOCMA

11 May 2010 20:18  [Source: ICIS news]

Plane sprays chems on oil spillHOUSTON (ICIS news)--The Gulf oil spill has contributed to a toxic environment in the US Congress and will make political compromises needed to pass significant legislation almost impossible in 2010, the president and CEO of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA) said on Tuesday.

"The oil spill could not have happened at a worse time," said Lawrence Sloan, speaking on the sidelines of the Informex Specialty Chemical Conference in Houston.

"There really were some conciliatory measures on both sides. You had the oil drilling plan in there, further exploration for natural gas, investment in nuclear power. Now I think it's just toxic," he said.

While the SOCMA chief executive noted minimal direct impact to member companies, Sloan said he had heard the spill from the sunken Deepwater Horizon offshore rig dubbed the Chernobyl of the oil industry, referring to the 1986 incident in Ukraine considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

"First things first, we don't even know what the cause of this spill is," Sloan said. "I feel like BP is really struggling with this, and it's very unfortunate. It is still leaking and we haven't even found out what the problem is.

"Because of the depth of this particular well, the systems put into place maybe technologically were just not appropriate for this type of application," he continued. "Shallower wells, that's proven technology but for deeper wells, maybe not so much."

As such, Sloan said he expected the offshore drilling plan initially approved by the Obama administration in late March to be put on hold, along with a number of other initiatives.

"Politically, I just don't see how oil drilling will make its way," Sloan said. "I think it'll be put on hold and I don't really see any further movement on this issue for the rest of the year. This just made things so much more complicated."

For the chemical industry in particular, the complications would involve the future of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) and the modernisation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), according to the SOCMA CEO.

Sloan said the CFATS legislation, which last year was extended by one year until October 2010, was likely to again have a one-year extension as industry and environmental groups continued to debate the merits of an inherently safer technology (IST) mandate.

"Setting aside the arguments that IST would be a huge burden on the Department of Homeland Security to enforce, as well as the issue of it stifling product innovation, there is still no general consensus among scientific experts as to what exactly IST means," Sloan said.

"With everything going on right now - financial regulatory reform, cap and trade, and the oil spill thing - I don't think we'll get to CFATS and it'll be renewed for another year as is," he added.

For TSCA, Sloan said he anticipated Congressional committees engaging the industry soon, particularly since the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently introduced a discussion bill. The issue would be confronting "scientific illiteracy" presented by the mainstream media, he said.

"Scientific illiteracy is rampant," Sloan said. "It's everywhere. SOCMA perceives there to be an underlying sentiment among consumer advocacy groups in which all chemicals, regardless of how they are manufactured, handled and used, are bad.

"We have very, very strong relationships on [Capitol] Hill on both sides of the aisle, and we'll be working very hard with committee staffs to explain our positions," he said.

For example, a highly toxic chemical used in a tightly-controlled industrial environmental or in small quantities generally means the risk to public health is relatively small, he said.

Sloan pointed to the group's annual fly-in campaign in which member companies meet with elected representatives on Capitol Hill as an opportunity to articulate such sentiments, set to take place in June.

Moreover, many of the chemicals produced by its member companies are intermediates which consumers never come into contact with, Sloan noted.

"It's a full-time job to educate these folks and help them understand what you really need,"said Sloan, who took over as head of SOCMA in February. "We're doing all we can."

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