U.S. House votes to end deepwater drilling moratorium


The House voted Friday to end the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, though Republicans and a Louisiana industry group said it gives too much discretion to the Interior Department and provides no guarantees drilling will resume quickly.

The amendment — sponsored by Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville — was added to a sweeping offshore drilling regulatory bill that would eliminate the $75 million cap on oil-company liability for spills, codify the reorganization of the much-maligned Minerals Management Services, and give the presidential commission investigating the BP rig-spill subpoena power.

The bill, which Republicans said could harm smaller producers, passed on a mostly party-line vote.

Some of the most heated debate occurred over Melancon’s moratorium amendment.

Responding to Republicans who said it would still allow Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to deny permits for drilling, even if new tougher safety standards are adopted, Melancon said it is the responsible approach.

“If we have it the way of the other side, we’ll send rigs out, not inspect — the hell with it,” an emotional Melancon said. “The next thing we know we’re back where we started.”

He said his amendment “makes sure America has energy and the people of my district, the state of Louisiana, have jobs, good jobs, and we can continue the prosperity we’ve known in the past.”

But Louisiana Republicans and the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association said the amendment only grants Salazar the authority to determine whether to issue a permit after an oil company complies with the new expanded safety requirements. The Louisiana Gas Association said that the bill should have said that “the secretary shall issue the permit.”

The amendment passed 216-195 with all six of Melancon’s Republican colleagues in the delegation voting against.

Melancon attempted to amend his proposal to change “determine” to “shall,” but that amendment required unanimous consent to be considered, and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., objected.

Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, R-New Orleans, said Melancon was “duped” by Democratic leaders. Cao said his reading of the amendment is that it codifies the Interior secretary’s ability to issue a moratorium, which has been challenged somewhat successfully in the federal courts.

In the end, the debate might not add up to much. The Senate isn’t expected to take up the offshore regulatory legislation until September, and the moratorium, now slated to end in November, is being examined by the White House spill commission, which is considering whether the moratorium could be ended sooner.

The overall bill — the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources legislation — passed 209-193.

It would set new standards for blowout preventers, the safety devices that have become a focus of investigation in the BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, and would bar companies with bad safety records from applying for new drilling permits — a provision aimed at solely at BP.

The bill would increase fines for violations of federal regulations, establish new ethics rules for federal regulators and repeal a 2005 energy law that allowed companies, including BP’s doomed rig, to be exempted from environmental assessments.

It would require, when possible, that rigs operate under the U.S. flag. BP’s rig was registered in the Marshall Islands. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said that the provision is a “cynical exploitation of the tragedy and of patriotism” because the U.S. currently doesn’t have rig-manufacturing facilities.

But Democrats said that the bill brings needed controls to an oil and gas industry that has operated without much oversight.

“We want to ensure that offshore drilling is done efficiently, while protecting both the environment and our No. 1 natural resource: the brave men and women who help power this great nation,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

But Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said the bill would be a “job killer in Louisiana by making it prohibitively expensive for small operators in the Gulf.

“This isn’t the answer to help the Gulf,” Scalise said. “It only helps OPEC.”

The bill includes another amendment sponsored by Melancon, to impose a new fine of $200 million per 1 million barrels spilled in the Gulf, a provision he said could generate $1.2 billion for coastal restoration efforts in Louisiana. Republicans said the retroactive fine on BP would generate a lengthy court battle.

Cao said the bill doesn’t do enough to help his constituents, who are looking for help with jobs, and fails to provide any immediate financing or authority to move forward with needed coastal restoration work.

“I have experienced the oil spill personally, I have lived with the victims” and “feel their pain, anger and frustration, but this bill doesn’t create jobs, doesn’t have any job training, and in my view probably destroys many jobs,” Cao said.

Democrats painted a different picture of the GOP opposition.

“If you want to apologize for Big Oil, go ahead,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “The American people are not on your side on this one.”

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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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