Make drilling safer
Congress needs to pass an oil-spill bill and empower a panel probing the Gulf disaster.
It was less than four months ago that BP finally managed to plug the oil well that spewed nearly 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Who could forget the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S history? Congress.
The U.S. House passed needed legislation in July to raise safety standards for offshore wells, require better disaster planning from companies that drill, improve government oversight, do away with the $75 million cap on liability for spills and dedicate a share of fines to coastal restoration. But similar legislation has languished in the Senate.
And Congress has failed to give a presidential commission looking into the Deepwater Horizon disaster the power to subpoena witnesses — a critical tool for investigators who are still trying to figure out what happened.
Such inertia from lawmakers is inexcusable. It’s especially galling for Florida and the other Gulf states that bore the environmental and economic brunt of this summer’s spill.
After the House passed its oil-spill legislation on a largely party-line vote, with Democrats generally in favor and Republicans opposed, a deadlock between the two parties in the Senate stalled its version of the bill. While most Senate Democrats wanted to eliminate the cap on liability for spills, Republicans and some oil-state Democrats warned that taking away limits on damage payments would discourage all but the biggest companies from offshore drilling. But surely the two sides could have settled on a compromise, such as the $10 billion cap that Florida Democrat Bill Nelson had proposed.
The current $75 million cap is ridiculously low. Raising it would prod companies to take more precautions when they drill offshore, and ensure taxpayers don’t bear the lion’s share of the burden for damages caused by spills. BP’s decision under White-House pressure to set aside up to $20 billion to pay damage claims does not guarantee, or even suggest, other companies will agree to a similar deal following future spills.
Meanwhile the chief lawyer for the commission investigating the spill pleaded during a public hearing this week for Congress to give subpoena power to the panel, which is co-chaired by former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. Commission counsel Fred Bartlit said the power to compel witnesses to testify “will obviously add to our ability to get to the bottom of this.”
Yet partisan politics also explains why the commission doesn’t have subpoena power. After President Obama appointed the panel this summer, Republicans contended it was tilted against the oil industry and offshore drilling. Since then, however, the commission has repeatedly demonstrated its independence. This week, for example, Mr. Bartlit said the panel had not seen evidence that BP had sacrificed safety for profits — a view that contradicts the industry’s critics, including some leading Democrats.
Congress will reconvene in the next few weeks to take care of some unfinished business. A spending plan to keep the federal government running is its first priority. But it’s also essential for lawmakers to make time to revive an oil-spill bill and give the commission subpoena power.
In the Senate, at least some Republicans will need to break ranks with their party to make it happen. Florida’s George LeMieux is leaving the chamber this year, but has designs on returning. He could strengthen his case for voters to send him back by putting the best interests of his state — protecting Florida’s environment and economy — ahead of the political agenda of his party.