A year after Gulf oil spill, Congress is sitting on its hands


WASHINGTON – A year after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Congress has done virtually nothing to address the issues raised by the oil spill — from industry liability limits, to regulatory reform, to coastal restoration, to broader issues of energy policy.

There are the usual suspects of partisan gridlock and political gamesmanship in what was, in 2010, a congressional election year, culminating in a Republican takeover of the House, which completely flipped the script on the lessons of the Macondo blowout.

Hearings that in the previous Congress were stacked – as many as five-a-day deep – against the oil industry, are now, in the new Congress, as surely stacked in its favor.

Alarm about an oil spill that spewed day after day, month after month, in an emotionally draining public drama, has given way to the more mundane but politically potent public panic about rising gas prices that once again puts a premium on boosting domestic production.

Indeed, a sudden nuclear disaster in Japan, scarier in its way than an oil spill, placed the human and environmental cost of energy in frightening perspective.

And an Obama administration that had, against fierce opposition from the industry and its Gulf state advocates in Congress, stopped deepwater drilling for nearly a year after the spill as it implemented a new regulatory regime, has now slowly, methodically – and under enormous pressure – returned to permitting, satisfied that it has done what needed to be done to make deepwater drilling fall within the acceptable boundaries of risk.

No illusions

“It’s much safer than it was last April,” Michael Bromwich, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, who has led those efforts, said Friday. “A lot of the reforms they were talking about in Congress, those would not have increased the safety of offshore drilling to nearly the extent we have already increased it.

“No one here is under the illusion that this is a riskless endeavor, though some in industry and some in government might have once thought so,” Bromwich said.

But, he said, “it’s a lot safer than it was before.”

Moreover, there are those, like Kenneth Green, an environmental scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who are grateful that Congress did not enact legislation in the wake of the spill.

“At the time of the spill, that was our hope, that people wouldn’t overreact and people wouldn’t put into place bad legislation in the response to the spill,” said Green, who feared that Congress would have only piled onto the Obama administration’s regulatory efforts in a manner that would have further bottle-necked offshore production.

Largely lost have been the recommendations of the National Oil Spill Commission named by President Barack Obama, which called for an overhaul of the government and industry approach to safety, including the creation of an independent safety agency within the Interior Department, a steep increase in the oil spill liability limit, and a big boost in spending for regulation, much of it paid for by fees on industry. This last proposal, embraced by the Obama administration, has foundered so far in Congress.

The 101 spill-related bills introduced in the previous Congress has been whittled to 15 so far this year.

‘I think the pressure is off’

The hopes of Democrats, environmentalists and others who wanted to harness the outrage over Deepwater Horizon into a lasting legacy of legislative reform, now largely rests with a bill sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, and longtime antagonist of the oil industry, which would enact many of the Oil Spill Commission’s recommendations.

But its prospects are virtually nil.

“I think overall (the Oil Spill Commission’s report) was a responsible and balanced report, but I don’t think anything’s going to come out of it,” said Charles Ebinger, who heads the Energy Security Initiative at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington. “I don’t think this is front and center for too many people.”

“I think the pressure is off,” said Michael Gravitz, oceans advocate for Environment America.

Meanwhile, the Republicans who took over the House are focusing their legislative efforts on reducing the regulations they say inhibit economic growth and job creation.

Rep. Doc Hasting, R-Wash., the new chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, has filed bills intended to increase domestic oil and gas production.

“We must be mindful of how we respond because that response could significantly impact American energy policy in the future,” Hastings said at a recent hearing. “The response to this event (the BP disaster) would be the difference between making offshore drilling the safest in the world or locking up our resources, putting more Americans out of work and further relying on foreign countries for our energy needs.”

Hastings spokesman Spencer Pederson said the new chairman isn’t forgetting about safety issues. He said that Hastings bill to substantially increase domestic drilling opportunities contains a requirement that the Interior Department ensure that drilling operations “meet all critical safety requirements, including blowout prevention, and oil spill response and containment requirements.”

But Markey marvels that, “Nearly a year after the BP blowout, and months after House Democrats passed spill safety legislation, Republicans in the House and Senate are acting as if the accident never happened. Amazingly, House Republicans are trying to pass legislation that would speed up drilling, lessen safety, and give new subsidies to oil companies while preserving billions of dollars in existing tax breaks. We should be reviewing the lessons of the BP disaster, not lessening safety review.

“Republicans wouldn’t be pushing this agenda if the oil industry weren’t pushing them to do so,” Markey said. “The people who could ultimately pay for the pre-spill mentalities promoted by the industry and their allies in Congress are the families of the Gulf and the brave rig workers whose work environment currently has 4 times as many fatalities as their counterparts who drill offshore in the North Sea.”

Comfort level sought

Former Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, who lost badly in his bid last year to unseat Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he believes some in Congress are misreading the sentiments of Louisiana residents.

“The people of Louisiana support the oil and gas industry, and vice versa, as did I,” Melancon said. “But people of my district who were directly impacted wanted a comfort level that this type of event might never happen again.”

At the height of public concern with the spill, the House last year, then still solidly in the control of Democrats, passed a bill that would set new standards for blowout preventers – the safety device that the oil spill commission says failed in the Macondo disaster – as well as increased fines for violations of federal regulations, and new ethics rules for federal regulators.

The Senate never took up the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it became clear he couldn’t get the 60 votes needed for passage because of opposition from most Republicans and some Democrats.

“It hit a solid wall of Republican opposition in the Senate,” said Daniel Weiss, the director or climate strategy for the liberal Center for American Progress.

Even a more modest bill, a compromise being negotiated by Mary Landrieu, D-La., that would have increased liability for spills beyond the current $75 million limit and directed most of the BP fine and penalty money to coastal restoration, never made it to the floor during the Senate’s lame-duck session after the election, which was consumed with legislation to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years.

Legislation to give the BP spill commission the same subpoena power given other investigative commissions couldn’t get to the floor. Another would have allowed families of the 11 rig workers killed in the explosion to collect damages comparable to those allowed for land-based accidents. It failed when a single senator objected, preventing it from getting a vote.

“I would hope that BP was not responsible for convincing that senator to block that bill, but I don’t know that,” said Christopher Jones, whose brother was killed in the accident.

Legislation to direct 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalty money to coastal restoration seems to have broad support – Gulf lawmakers, of course, but also the Obama administration and the Oil Spill Commission, which made it one of its foremost recommendations. But it still awaits its moment in the legislative sun.

The peril for all these legislative efforts, a year after the spill, is that time is not on their side.

“It hasn’t helped that the news media has moved away from covering the disaster to the democracy efforts in the Middle East and Libya, the continued problem with jobs, the Japanese earthquake and nuclear problems, the budget dispute and, of course, Lindsay Lohan’s latest shoplifting issues,” said David Petit of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But Petit hopes that coverage of the first anniversary of the BP spill on April 20 may refix the public mind on what happened a year ago, and put more pressure on Congress to act to make sure it never happens again.

Bruce Alpert can be reached at balpert@timespicayune.com or 202.857.5131. Jonathan Tilove can be reached at jtilove@timespicayune.com or 202.383.7827.


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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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