Capitol Hill Gusher: Giant BP Gulf Coast Spill Yields Flow Of Oil Related Legislation

While the BP oil disaster continues to leak as much as 100,000 barrels a day into the waters off the coast of Louisiana, it’s also gushing legislation across Capitol Hill as lawmakers work to contain the spill’s environmental and economic damage.

House and Senate Democrats are unveiling a growing number of bills in response to the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by an explosion last month on an offshore drilling platform leased by energy giant BP.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has introduced a series of bills prompted by the BP incident. His legislation would establish a commission to investigate the oil spill, lift limits on punitive damages against big oil companies, and raise the civil and criminal penalties associated with violating provisions of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA).

“We can no longer tolerate periodic accidents which devastate marine ecosystems,” says Whitehouse, who, as Rhode Island’s U.S. attorney in 1997, secured more than $9 million in criminal penalties following the North Cape oil spill. “By examining the cause of this particular spill, and making it clear that oil companies will be held accountable for these sad events, I hope these bills will help prevent future accidents.”

A group of West Coast senators, meanwhile, put forward legislation today to permanently prohibit offshore drilling on the outer continental shelf of California, Oregon and Washington State. That bill would amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to permanently protect the $34 billion coastal economies of the three states – which support nearly 570,000 jobs in California, Oregon and Washington, the senators say.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who heads up the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, supports both the Whitehouse legislation, as well as the West Coast Ocean Protection Act.

Boxer’s EPW panel on Tuesday is set to hold a hearing into the federal response thus far to the BP disaster. The Tuesday session will follow a hearing the committee already held last week on the matter.

“Our ocean environment is not only a God-given treasure and our legacy — it is also a great economic asset,” she says. “In California, ocean-related tourism, recreation and fishing generate $23 billion in economic activity each year and support 390,000 jobs. California’s 19 coastal counties account for 86 percent of the state’s annual economic activity, or more than $1 trillion. Nationwide, ocean tourism, recreation, and fishing provide nearly $130 billion in economic activity and 2.4 million jobs annually.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers also are putting forward bills in the House, as well. Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) has introduced his own West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2010 that would stop all new offshore oil drilling on platforms in federal waters on the West Coast.

“The Gulf Coast oil spill is a clarion call to reevaluate our nation’s priorities,” Garamendi says. “Do we want to continue drilling and spilling, or should we instead invest in the renewable energy sources that are our future? The West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2010 stops all new offshore oil drilling in federal waters off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. We know disaster can strike from any platform, and the risk simply isn’t worth the reward.”

Whether any of this surfeit of oil-related legislation makes it into law is an open question. These measures appear to face an uncertain future, especially in the Senate, where Republicans already have begun blocking it.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, ranking Republican of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, last week blocked a vote on a bill that would raise the liability caps for oil companies from $75 million to $10 billion. Senators who support the the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act say it is intended to prevent taxpayers from having to foot the bill for the cleanup of the massive oil spill, which is expected to be larger even than the 1989 ExxonValdez accident.

For her part, Murkowski touts her own bill, sponsored along with her Alaskan Democratic colleague, Sen. Mark Begich, S. 3309, which she says would increase the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to $10 billion by raising taxes on the oil industry.

With 41 votes in the Senate, the GOP potentially has the power to block any oil-spill related bill. BP, and the entire oil and gas industry, have given generously to support the campaigns of many incumbent legislators.

Already in the 2010 election cycle, the industry has contributed $11.6 million to various candidates — 70 percent of whom are Republicans, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Further, it remains to be seen which of these bills President Obama would be willing to sign — particularly whether he would support the legislation which would disallow any offshore drilling off the West Coast. Before the BP incident, the president announced a liberalization of offshore drilling. Even after the disaster began, Obama said offshore drilling should resume after a thorough investigation of the BP spill.

After more than a year of working hand-in-glove with Congress, time will tell if oil becomes a serious issue that splits Obama from his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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