As Hurricane Alex churns, Senate panels back tougher oil regulations

Hurricane Alex churns westward through the Gulf of Mexico as Gulf Coast residents and oil cleanup workers brace for the storm.
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; 9:22 PM

Two key Senate committees approved legislation Wednesday that would change the way the federal government regulates offshore oil drilling and penalizes companies for oil spills, demonstrating lawmakers' eagerness to respond to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Both measures passed on bipartisan voice votes. One approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee would raise the civil and criminal penalties for a spill, require more safety equipment redundancies, boost the number of federal safety inspectors and demand additional precautions for deep-water drilling. The other, passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee, would remove oil companies' $75 million liability limit and retroactively remove the liability cap for BP and the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

They will now head to the Senate floor. On the House side, lawmakers have begun debating a bill that would impose additional safeguards on offshore and onshore drilling, and the Natural Resources Committee is preparing to take up a bill that would radically overhaul federal regulation and oversight of offshore drilling.

As waves caused by Hurricane Alex slowed cleanup operations, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) -- chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and the environment -- said BP failed to mention the prospect of a hurricane or tropical storm affecting any potential oil spill in the response plan it submitted to federal authorities for the gulf a year ago.

"The BP plan had walruses in the gulf but no hurricanes," Markey said. "Walruses haven't been in the gulf in a few million years, while a hurricane is just a few hundred miles from the spill site right now. This is yet another example of BP serial complacency."

BP spokesman Andrew Gowers declined to comment on the matter.

Also on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency released its first round of testing results on the toxicity of oil dispersants, saying initial findings suggest that the dispersant BP is using in the gulf is less harmful than oil and does not pose a significant environmental threat.

In a telephone news conference, Paul Anastas, the EPA's assistant administrator for research and development, said it was "too early to draw conclusions" about the long-term impact of Corexit 9500, the dispersant BP has applied to break up oil spewing from the downed Deepwater Horizon rig. The agency has yet to analyze the impact of dispersants mixed with oil and instead just tested the application of eight types of dispersants to marine animals in a lab setting.

"We need more data to decide whether it's necessary to switch dispersants," Anastas said.

BP's first submitted its spill response plan for the Gulf of Mexico to the federal government Dec. 1, 2000, then gave authorities a revised plan June 30, 2009. The document mentions "weather" several times, but does not include a detailed analysis of how severe weather would affect a cleanup operation.

Even as Markey criticized BP's spill preparedness, the Senate environment and public works committee approved legislation authored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that would remove oil companies' $75 million liability limit under current law. Menendez's bill would retroactively remove the liability cap for BP and the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

The bill passed in committee on a voice vote. The panel rejected an amendment by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) that would have instead given the president the authority to set liability caps on a rig-by-rig basis. On that vote, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) joined all 12 Democrats in opposing the amendment.

"This bill is simple and common sense -- it asserts that we want to protect coastal families, not oil company profits. It asserts that oil companies should bear the burden of the economic damage their spills cause, not taxpayers," Menendez said in a statement. "As we see the images and read the stories from the Gulf Coast night after night, it could not be clearer that coastal families and taxpayers are the ones who need protection, not oil companies."

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