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Did Hillary Clinton cast a vote that led to the BP tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico?

(Scott Audette/Reuters)
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“With Sanders scheduled to address a rally here [Tampa] tonight in this Gulf of Mexico coastal community, his campaign cited the 2006 vote on the gulf drilling bill. Sanders, then a member of the House, voted against the legislation. Clinton, then a senator, voted for the bill. After the bill passed, the oil giant BP obtained a permit to drill in the area where one of its rigs exploded in 2010, killing 11 workers and causing a catastrophic spill of of 130 million gallons of oil into the gulf.”

— From a news release issued by the Bernie Sanders campaign, March 10, 2016

The Bernie Sanders campaign, touting an event to be held in Tampa, sought to tie Hillary Clinton to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill by citing a vote she cast in 2006.

We’ve often warned readers about how politicians misleadingly cite votes to make attacks, as the reality of legislative sausage-making is often more complicated than the attacks suggest. Sanders, in fact, has complained that Clinton has repeatedly misrepresented some of his votes. So is his campaign doing the same thing here?

The Facts

The Sanders news release suggests that there was a straightforward cause and effect. Clinton voted for the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006. And then “after the bill passed,” BP obtained the fateful permit to drill that resulted in the deadly and costly tragedy.

But when you dig into the details, that’s kind of like saying Clinton voted for the bill and the sun came up the next morning. Just as the legislation did not cause the sun to rise, the permit obtained by BP had nothing to do with the bill that Clinton supported.

The Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, in fact, was a much milder version of legislation initially passed by the GOP-controlled House, the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act of 2006, which would have opened most of the territorial waters currently off-limits, subject to state approval. It received only 40 votes from Democrats and even the GOP-controlled Senate had little interest in it.

But the Senate did pass, by a vote of 71 to 25, a bill to open for leasing an area of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, known as the “181 Area,” located over 100 miles off the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast, as well as an area south of 181. While the bill repealed the congressional moratorium on certain areas of the Gulf of Mexico, it also placed a moratorium on other areas until 2022. It also increased the distribution of offshore oil and gas revenue to states along the coast. (We should note that then-Sens. Barack Obama and Joseph Biden did not support this measure.)

In a floor statement at the time, Clinton said that “as part of a balanced energy policy, we need to expand domestic oil and gas production where it has local support and can do so in an environmentally sound way.” But she warned that she would oppose any effort by the House to expand offshore drilling to areas not permitted in the Senate bill.

So, just to be clear, Sanders, who was then in the House, voted against a different bill than the one Clinton voted for. The House never took up the Senate version. But after the GOP lost control of the Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, the Senate version was folded into a tax bill and passed during the lame-duck session. Sanders also voted against the omnibus bill; it passed the Senate in a voice vote.

The Sanders campaign noted that on March 19, 2008, then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne officially opened Lease Sale 206 and 224 for the Gulf of Mexico. Lease Sale 224 was touted as “the first oil and natural gas sale to include the immediate revenue sharing provisions for Gulf States that were mandated by the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006.” But Lease Sale 206 was related to BP’s permit for the drilling by Deepwater Horizon, specifically Mississippi Canyon block 252.

Lease Sale 206, which offered 5,569 tracts comprising about 29.8 million acres in federal areas offshore Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, resulted in bids of nearly $3.6 billion, up 26 percent from the previous lease sale, in 2007, according to a report in SNL Gas Week. BP was the third-biggest spender, bidding more than $336 million.

But while Lease Sale 224, in the eastern part of the gulf, was affected by the revenue-sharing provisions in the law, Lease Sale 206 instead was just one of many lease sales that had been taking place on a regular basis, even before the 2006 law. Under the law, federal revenue derived from Central Lease Sale 206 won’t be shared with coastal states until 2017.

In other words, Lease Sale 206 had nothing to do with areas opened up for offshore drilling by the bill that Clinton supported. That is also confirmed by the notice for Lease Sale 206 in the Federal Register: “The proposal does not include approximately 5.8 million acres located in the southeastern part of the Central Planning Area which the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 opened to leasing after many years.”

Warren Gunnels, a senior policy aide to Sanders, said it is a fact that Clinton voted for the bill and that BP obtained a permit after the bill was passed. “In addition to those facts, I believe that it is fair to assume that if the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 was defeated, the Interior Department would have thought twice before approving more offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

Gunnels also pointed to a chart showing that oil production in the Gulf of Mexico spiked after the leases were offered. But that’s largely because Hurricanes Gustav and Ike had virtually shut down production in late 2008.

The Pinocchio Test

The Sanders campaign can certainly contrast the candidates’ votes on offshore drilling. But it cannot insinuate that Clinton’s vote in 2006 had anything to do with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Indeed, as phrased, the Sanders campaign statement would make any reasonable person believe that if it weren’t for the bill that Clinton supported, BP would not have obtained a permit. But there is no cause-and-effect that can be found.

We wavered between Three and Four Pinocchios. Given this was made in a prepared statement — and because of the Sanders campaign’s unwillingness to admit error — we tipped toward Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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