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Nil, Baby, Nil: Congress Fails To Pass A Single Oil Spill Law
NEW YORK -- Soon after his son Gordon died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion last April, Keith Jones made eight trips to Washington D.C. to push for stronger safety measures in offshore oil drilling and to increase the compensation paid to victims of the tragic accident. He met with President Obama, who apologized for the families' "unimaginable grief" and cradled Gordon's baby boy Maxwell in his arms.
When Jones arrived on Capitol Hill, he says he was mobbed by Senators and Representatives eager to express their condolences and to promise that they would swiftly pass legislation to make sure such a tragedy never happens again.
He is still waiting.
In the year since the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history, Congress hasn't adopted any major laws on oil and gas drilling -- despite introducing more than 150 bills to improve the safety and oversight of offshore drilling and holding more than 60 hearings to discuss the spill's causes and consequences with regulators, oil company officials, grieving relatives and Gulf-area fishermen.
"Nothing has happened," said Jones, speaking by phone from his law office in Baton Rouge. "When oil was still gushing out of the Gulf, everybody wanted to do everything right, to do whatever they could to keep that from happening again. But that was then. Now, everybody is back to drilling more, making more money and not worrying about safety. That attitude is what cost the lives of 11 men and caused the biggest environmental disaster in our history," he said.
Jones traces the inaction to political gridlock and to the nation’s fading attention span. He claims that as soon as the gushing undersea well was capped and the nonstop TV coverage slowed to a trickle in July, he no longer commanded the same attention.
"I remember the day they capped that well -- those images had been up in the corner of every TV screen, all that oil gushing into the ocean -- I stopped seeing senators and congressmen and started seeing staffers."
In January, President Obama's oil spill commission released a slew of recommendations for changes that would seek to ensure safer drilling operations, provide better spill response, lift the existing liability cap on oil companies and secure funding for coastal restoration efforts in the Gulf. Yet though bipartisan leaders of the commission have personally lobbied members of Congress, no major legislation has been adopted. Lawmakers did accept the commission's recommendation for a budget increase for the federal agency with oversight of offshore drilling.
"I am disappointed," said oil spill commission co-chairman William Reilly, a former EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush. He added that he is worried by House Natural Resources Committee chair Rep. Doc Hastings’ (R-Wash.) intention “to wait until all the investigations are resolved before developing his own legislation. One hopes that it will be responsive to the commission's recommendations," Reilly said.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) that would enact many of the commission's recommendations has little chance of passing, given the Republican majority in the House.
Markey expressed his disappointment at the lack of a legislative response in a statement provided to The Huffington Post:
"One year after the BP spill began, the American people and the citizens of the Gulf shouldn't believe that another major spill couldn't occur, or that our response wouldn't be as sub-par as it was during last summer's spill. Many holes still exist in our offshore drilling safety regime, and another spill could happen again."
About 18 months after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 -- the largest spill in the nation's history at the time -- Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act, which required companies to detail their spill-prevention and spill-cleanup plans, notes Richard Charter, a senior policy adviser at Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group.
"You're seeing Congress pretend that Deepwater never happened," he said. "You're seeing them say, 'Let's take similar risks in sensitive areas, in spite of what happened.’”
Just last week, the House Natural Resources Committee passed three bills to accelerate the offshore drilling permitting process and open up new areas to drilling off the coasts of California, Florida, Massachusetts and North Carolina. The bill's sponsor, Hastings, says his legislation increases safety oversight by writing a requirement for government permitting of offshore drilling projects into federal law.
The legislation, which would require federal regulators to act on offshore drilling permits within 30 days, alarmed environmentalists and members of the administration who expressed their concern that it rushes an important process.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar blamed Republicans for having a "sense of amnesia" about last year's spill, adding, "much of the legislation that I have seen being bandied around, especially with the House Republicans, is almost as if the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well incident never happened."
The opposition to new legislation that requires stricter oversight largely stems from the anti-regulatory zeal of conservative lawmakers and from the influence of the oil industry, say congressional staffers from both parties.
In 2010, the oil and gas industry spent more than $146 million to lobby the federal government and donated $28 million to federal campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"The lobbying is relentless and continuous on the Hill," says John Amos, a former oil industry geologist who heads the SkyTruth environmental group. "And the public sector groups are no match for the well-oiled machine that the American Petroleum Institute is."
Shortly before he introduced his legislation, Hastings held a closed-door, invitation-only meeting with top energy lobbyists, Politico reported. A spokesperson for Hastings did not return several requests for comment.
And BP is back to making contributions to politicians -- largely to GOP leaders -- breaking a self-imposed moratorium on such donations in the wake of the oil spill. The oil giant gave $5,000 contributions to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), among others.
Last week, Louisiana's senators, Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R), introduced legislation that calls for dedicating at least 80 percent of BP penalties paid under the Clean Water Act to Gulf states to restore the coastal ecosystem and its economies damaged by the spill.
Some lawmakers from both parties have argued that new legislation should await the results of several ongoing investigations into the accident by the National Academy of Engineering and the Chemical Safety Board. Though the same caution was preached in advance of the oil spill commission's findings in January, no new legislation has been proposed. Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) expressed his concern about the tendency in Washington for incidents to prompt new laws "and a whole new level of bureaucracy. ... There's no question we need to improve oversight, but I rather doubt that a new law is a good thing," he told the Shreveport Times. "That's sort of a knee-jerk reaction we have in Washington."
Offshore drilling watchdog SkyTruth's John Amos, whose satellite-imagery exposed the true extent of the spill, advocates legislation that requires stronger oversight of deepwater drilling but agreed it “may be appropriate to keep your powder dry while the Chemical Safety Board [probe] is still going on."
Some of the presidential oil spill commission's recommendations have been adopted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement, the regulatory agency that oversees offshore drilling. Led by former prosecutor Michael Bromwich, the successor agency to the scandal-prone Minerals Management Service has won praise for ramping up oversight, though critics claim that it still depends too much on industry-written standards and has not yet revamped its oil spill response plans. Since imposing new safety and environmental rules, the bureau has approved 46 new shallow-water wells and 10 permits for deepwater drilling projects that had been blocked by Obama's moratorium in the wake of the oil spill.
Among Jones's biggest frustrations was to witness first-hand the collapse of an uncontroversial bill to change an archaic law, the Death on the High Seas Act, that limits the damages that the families of the 11 victims of the Deepwater Horizon can recover. After passing the House, the bill was held up in the Senate due to lobbying by cruise lines and shipping companies until Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-Del.) adjusted it to only apply to the Deepwater victims. But one senator, Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) blocked the body from voting on it in December, just before the end of the congressional session.
Jones said that he tried to talk to the senator but "he didn't have time for me." One of DeMint's staffers told Jones that the senator objected because he did not believe that Congress should pass laws that have a retroactive effect, the staffer claimed.
"That's a lie," thundered Jones, explaining that DeMint voted in the House to pass legislation in 2000 that amended the liability for aviation accidents to make it retroactive by five years. And a week after blocking the bill to amend the Death on the High Seas Act, DeMint supported the legislation to help treat 9/11 first responders.
DeMint was also the only senator who prevented a vote by unanimous consent on a bill that would have given President Obama's oil spill commission subpoena power -- a spokesman later said that DeMint himself did not object to the provision but that he was acting on behalf of "members of the Republican conference." He eventually lifted the block and the measure passed. A similar measure had earlier passed the House by a vote of 420-1.
A spokesperson for DeMint declined several requests for comment.
Former Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) who voted for the bill to amend the Death on the High Seas Act, says he was stunned that it didn't pass, especially since it appears that there was negligence.
"How do you tell these people that you and your children don't get a thing?” he asked. “In good conscience, it's difficult for me to understand."