A Year After BP’s Oil Spill, Congress Sits Idly By: “It’s Not In The Headlines Anymore”
A year has passed since BP PLC’s Macondo well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 rig workers and launching the nation’s worst oil spill — and an all-encompassing environmental drama that played out for months as the oil industry and federal government struggled to contain the gusher.
But the heart-wrenching images of oil-slicked pelicans and the otherworldly videos of oil spewing from the seafloor largely seem to have faded from the minds of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. A year after the blowout, members of Congress have made little progress toward addressing the issues raised by the disaster.
The reasons for their lassitude are numerous.
Chief among them is the highly partisan environment on Capitol Hill, where a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate struggles to find common ground with the overwhelmingly Republican House.
“We haven’t responded because of the general polarization that has affected us in the last few months,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).
Also key is a shift in concern over offshore drilling safety, regulatory reform and coastal restoration to a closer-to-the-belt fear about the economic ramifications of escalating gasoline prices.
“It’s not in the headlines anymore,” said Rep. Joe Barton(R-Texas), the former ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who infamously apologized to BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward last summer for having to endure what Barton characterized as a White House “shakedown.”
Indeed, in the months since BP contained the gusher, a nuclear crisis in Japan and political unrest in the Middle East have sparked a rapid rise in crude oil prices, shifting the energy conversation from one disaster to another. And a resumption of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico — albeit slowly — has dampened the urgency to pass a spill-response bill that would end the Obama administration’s ban on offshore exploration, a GOP priority.
Still, the lack of progress on a congressional spill response is not sitting well with many in the environmental community.
“I don’t think anybody in Congress has a legitimate excuse for the fact that they’ve done nothing to respond to the worst environmental disaster this nation has ever seen,” said Regan Nelson, senior oceans advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Nor has it quelled the concerns of some of the staunchest environmental Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“We should have moved last year. We need a response,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
History repeating itself?
But there is historical context for the delay. Congress waited a year and a half after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March 1989 before taking legislative action.
That spill happened at the beginning of the 101st Congress, when Democrats held the majority in both chambers.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is different. The disaster occurred in an election year, and although the House was able to pass a Democrat-authored spill-response measure last summer, the Senate ran out of political steam to push a bill through in the weeks before the election or in the “lame duck” session last fall.
The House-passed measure (H.R. 3534 (pdf)), which incorporated Democratic language from three House committees, would have beefed up offshore worker and environmental safety standards, imposed new ethics standards on federal drilling regulators, created a restoration program to coordinate efforts to rehabilitate the Gulf of Mexico and created a new industry-funded endowment to protect oceans, among other provisions.
It also would have eliminated liability limits on companies drilling offshore, something most Republicans and oil-state Democrats are staunchly against because of the impact it could have on smaller and independent drillers. Despite GOP resistance to the liability language and other provisions — 193 Republicans and oil-state Democrats voted against the measure — the legislation was ultimately reported favorably. But talks quickly stalled in the Senate, where Democratic margins were smaller and resistance to the liability language from two moderate oil-state Democrats was too great to allow time for passage in the waning months of 2010.
The liability issue is complex and hearkens back to the legislation passed in response to the Exxon Valdez spill. Under that law, Congress capped oil companies’ liability for economic damages related to a spill at $75 million. Oil companies are still responsible for paying the full cost of containing and cleaning up a spill.
At the Obama administration’s prodding last summer — the “shakedown” Barton referred to — BP set up an independent $20 billion claims fund to pay for spill-related damages.
And even though BP agreed to pay for all the financial costs related to its spill — such as fishermen put out of work or empty hotels at the beach at high season — many Democrats in Congress watched in horror as the price tag of those damages escalated and called for a significant hike or complete elimination of the $75 million liability limit to protect coastal residents from a future spill where the companies involved might not have such deep coffers.
Republicans and the oil-state Democrats are not necessarily opposed to raising the cap. They just do not want to eliminate it outright. Doing so would shut out smaller producers and devastate an already battered coastal economy, they say.
“I think there’s widespread consensus among Democrats and Republicans that the liability limit is too low, that it needs to be raised,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of the chief opponents of the unlimited liability language. “We want to do that in a way … that keeps the industry as robust as possible between the large multinational companies and the smaller independent companies” (E&E Daily, Feb. 2).
Landrieu is working with Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) on liability compromise language that would raise the initial cap to $250 million after which an industry-funded insurance pool would kick in. But the lawmakers have been negotiating on language since last September, with new promises each week that a bill is forthcoming. They have not introduced a compromise measure yet.
Other Democrats — and a lone Republican — have introduced new measures in both the House and Senate that would eliminate the liability cap entirely.
House focus on drilling
But none shows promise of moving any time soon. Republicans in the House appear poised to take up measures that would instead accelerate domestic oil and gas production, and Senate Democratic leaders have struggled to pass even slightly controversial bills.
Indeed, the House Natural Resources Committee this week marked up three measures from Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) that would force lease sales in new areas and compel the Interior Department to speed up drilling permit processing, among other provisions.
Such a stance is garnering criticism from Democrats on and off the Hill, like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose agency is responsible for overseeing offshore drilling.
“Much of the legislation I’ve seen bandied around, especially with the House Republicans, it’s almost as if the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well incident never happened,” Salazar told reporters earlier this week. “Some people seem to have gotten amnesia of Deepwater Horizon and the horrific BP spill. I don’t have amnesia” (E&ENews PM, April 12).
Interior has taken great strides to boost its regulatory structure and offshore drilling safety in the months since the spill. The agency has imposed new, stricter permitting safety standards. And it has completely reorganized the beleaguered office that oversees offshore development.
But Hastings bristled at Salazar’s remarks, saying one of his measures would strengthen drilling safety.
“The Gulf bill does two things that’s not current in law: It puts in law the permitting process and it requires the secretary to do a safety review, cleanup review,” Hastings told reporters in the Capitol this week. “Now those two are significant reforms in my vision.”
Democrats have other reforms in mind.
“Here we are, one week removed from the first anniversary of the BP spill, and the Republican majority is marking up a trio of bills that will take us back to the days of rubber stamps and systemic failures,” said Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the leading Democrat on the resources panel, in a statement earlier this week. “This legislative package reflects a pre-spill mentality of speed over safety.”
Markey earlier this year introduced a new spill-response bill (H.R. 501 (pdf)) that largely mirrors the House-passed bill from last summer while incorporating some of the recommendations from the presidential commission tasked with investigating the causes of the disaster.
The seven-member commission issued its final report to the president in January, making a number of recommendations about how to improve offshore drilling safety and citing the BP incident as evidence of “systemic” problems within the industry.
But Republicans have bristled at that language and will likely ignore the commission’s findings — and Markey’s prodding.
Specifically, Markey’s bill includes the unlimited liability language and calls for a dedicated funding stream for the federal agencies overseeing the offshore drilling industry from user fees on the oil and gas industry.
Republicans and the oil industry have raised concerns about language in the bill that would impose new fees on the oil industry.
Legislation that imposes new fees “would not achieve the results that some of these members are trying to achieve. It would actually reduce investment, reduce revenues, harm jobs,” said Eric Wohlschlegel, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s main trade group.
Instead, he said the industry tends to sway toward Hastings’ approach. “Policies that allow for more access will actually accomplish a lot of goals currently on Capitol Hill, which is create jobs, increase revenues and increase energy security.”
On the Senate side, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is prepping spill-response legislation that will likely look similar to the measure reported out of that committee last summer, with some inclusion of the presidential commission’s recommendations. But the measure won’t likely be as severe as Markey’s measure. For one, the energy panel does not have jurisdiction over liability; the Environment and Public Works Committee does. And Bingaman is known for crafting legislation that can get bipartisan support from many of his panel’s members, including Landrieu and Alaska Republican and oil-industry advocate Lisa Murkowski.
“One of the early bills will be a bill to ensure the Interior Department has the authority and resources they need to maintain proper regulation of oil and gas drilling on the outer continental shelf,” Bingaman said. “I think the American people support that, and I think we’ll have strong support again this year.”
Bingaman said he generally supports moving production and safety legislation separately.
“I don’t know why anyone in the Congress would not want to see us improve safety of drilling in the outer continental shelf,” he said. “I think that there ought to be bipartisan agreement to do whatever legislation needs to be done to improve safety and offshore drilling, and separate from that, we should have a full debate about the extent of increased production we want, things we want to do to encourage more production.”
Bingaman’s approach could gain modest support from environmentalists, who would likely still want to see further action on drilling reform.
NRDC’s Nelson called it “a great first step” and said she was looking forward to seeing the legislation.
Other measures she would like to see taken up include beefing up funding for the Interior agency that oversees offshore drilling, significantly raising the liability cap and sending a portion of the penalty money collected from BP for the spill to the Gulf region for coastal restoration work.
A rare area of consensus
The idea to use BP fines to pay for restoration of the coast has broad support among Republicans and Democrats both on and off Capitol Hill. The presidential panel called on the federal government to use 80 percent of the fines collected from BP for Clean Water Act violations to pay for coastal restoration in the Gulf. And Gulf Coast lawmakers are essentially unanimous in their support of such an idea.
Landrieu and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) yesterday introduced legislation that would dedicate 80 percent of BP’s penalty fees to coastal restoration in the states affected by the disaster.
Specifically, the measure would send 35 percent of the penalty money to the five Gulf Coast states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas — affected by the spill to be used specifically for ecosystem restoration and to support the travel, tourism and seafood industries. The measure would use 60 percent of the penalty money to establish a federal-state council to direct coastal restoration. And 5 percent of the funds would be used to create a science and technology program focused on coastal restoration, protection and research to improve offshore energy development safety.
The Clean Water Act allows U.S. EPA to collect $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled. Based on current federal estimates of 4.9 million barrels spilled, BP could face fines of $5.4 billion to $21.1 billion. Under current law, that money would be paid to the federal government.
“This is a great opportunity for the nation to do right by the Gulf Coast,” Landrieu said in a statement. “It’s a great opportunity for the polluters to step up and do the right thing.”
Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, has also authored a measure in the House that would direct some of the funds to Gulf states. And according to Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana, “everybody on the delegation is on board with the 80 percent.”
“It’s important to get it through now while you’re talking about deficit and the debt. You don’t want people to say ‘Oh, here’s this new pool of money, we should pay down the debt,’” Richmond said. “No, we should fix what was broken.”
But despite strong support for such a measure from Gulf state lawmakers, House leaders with jurisdiction do not appear anxious to move such legislation.
“I don’t want to act until all the information is in, and not all the information is in,” Hastings told reporters earlier this week. He wants to wait until all the investigations of the disaster — like the presidential commission’s study — are complete before moving any spill-response measures.
The joint Coast Guard and Interior Department board investigating the disaster recently pushed back the deadline for completing its inquiry until July.
But Hastings did not rule out all chances of movement on oil spill-response legislation this Congress.
“I want to get all the information,” he said, “and we’ll respond accordingly.”
By: Katie Howell, Greenwire; Contribution by John McArdel, The New York Times, Published in The New York Times, April 15, 2011
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