Gulf oil hearings continue on Capitol Hill


By the CNN Wire Staff


• Five oil-related hearings scheduled for Capitol Hill

• President Obama to make fourth trip to Gulf of Mexico

• Advocacy groups plan event against offshore oil drilling

(CNN) — Capitol Hill will be awash in oil disaster hearings Wednesday as the House and Senate tackle issues ranging from safety and cleanup to liability.

Three committees and two subcommittees will discuss matters related to the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico and the oil industry.

The hearings come as President Obama announced that he will make a fourth trip to the Gulf region next week and as environmental groups plan to hold a vigil later in June protesting offshore oil drilling.

Top Senate Democrats have called for a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s corporate liability laws in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, arguing that companies currently have little incentive to make safety and environmental concerns a top priority.

Specifically, the senators blasted a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that cut the amount of punitive damages a jury awarded to victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill by $2 billion. Also during Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, they criticized the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which would potentially limit BP’s liability for economic damages incurred by the Gulf spill to $75 million. Critics note that the amount is a small fraction of the cost a major oil spill like the Gulf disaster will inflict on communities.

New high-resolution video released by BP on Tuesday showed underwater images of the ruptured well gushing oil two days after robots made a cut of the well’s riser pipe in preparation for the company’s latest containment effort of the environmental disaster.

The first high-quality images from the ocean floor were released after Sens. Barbara Boxer and Bill Nelson requested in a letter Tuesday “full access to all video” related to the disaster to help independent experts determine the exact rate of oil flowing from the well.

The latest estimates have put the rate at a minimum of between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels a day (500,000 to 1 million gallons), but scientists on the government’s Flow Rate Technical Group have complained about the quality of video provided by BP to determine those numbers and have said the rate could be significantly higher.

BP’s own worst-case scenario puts the high-end estimate at 250,000 barrels (10.5 million gallons) a day.

Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration’s spokesman for the Gulf oil disaster, reported that BP’s collection of crude from the well has been “steadily climbing.”

Obama’s next visit to the Gulf Coast will come next week. His Monday and Tuesday itineraries will include stops in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, three of the four states affected by the 51-day-old disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the White House announced Tuesday. It will be his fourth trip to the region since the gusher began in late April.

Government and BP officials are under increasing pressure to stop the spill from local fishermen and officials to congressmen and environmental advocacy groups.

iReport: Share views on oil spill

BP has managed to place a loose-fitting cap over the well 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf and about 40 miles off Louisiana. But it won’t be completely shut down until BP completes drilling a relief well, a process that is expected to last until August.

“I am still disgusted with the lack of leadership and no one stepping up to take charge and say, ‘We’re not going to let the oil hit the beaches,'” said Tony Kennon, mayor of Orange Beach, Alabama, who on Saturday confronted a top BP official at a news conference.

“The word ‘overkill’ doesn’t exist in my vocabulary right now,” Kennon said. “I think we should have every possible asset on the shelf for any possible problem and have a contingency plan for any issue. I don’t feel like that’s the case.”

The brother of one of the 11 workers killed in the explosion on the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon blasted BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward on Tuesday.

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Christopher Jones highlighted Hayward’s recent remark that he wants his “life back.”

“Mr. Hayward, I want my brother’s life back,” Jones said. “We will never get (his) life back.”

Hayward has been summoned by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to appear June 17 at a hearing into the spill investigation.

Frustrated advocacy groups are planning a nationwide vigil. Hands Across the Sand & Sierra Club leaders say they’ll announce on Wednesday a “National Day of Action” for June 26.

The groups say it will be “a coalition of national, regional and local environmental groups to hold the largest gathering ever of Americans against offshore drilling.”

Meanwhile, water samples from the Gulf have confirmed low concentrations of oil below the surface and miles away from the ruptured wellhead, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday.

But oil found by a University of South Florida research vessel 142 miles southeast of BP’s broken well did not come from that well, said Jane Lubchenco of NOAA.

Analysis of water from three sites show that “there is definitely oil sub surface” in “very low concentrations,” Lubchenco said.

“We suspected that but it’s good to have confirmation,” she said.

BP had stated earlier that it had found no evidence of subsea oil.

Lubchenco said a University of South Florida research ship performed the testing of the water, taking samples from sites 40, 42 and 142 miles from the well. Surface oil found at the closest site, northeast of the well, was matched to oil from the spewing oil well, while tests on samples found at the next closest site, also northeast of the well, were inconclusive. In both cases, subsea oil was found in too small a quantity to determine if it came from the BP well.

But 142 miles southeast of the well, samples collected at 100-meter and 300-meter depths were determined not to be from the BP well, Lubchenco said.

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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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