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Gulf oil spill: a gush of legislation

May 11, 2010 |  3:49 pm

Red oil
Public hearings on the catastrophic gulf oil spill have only just begun, with their myriad opportunities for grandstanding, but more substantive political work is also underway: Federal lawmakers are tossing bills into the hopper to reform the nation's embattled offshore drilling program.

Three bills introduced in the Senate on Tuesday would establish a commission to investigate the spill, lift limits on punitive damages against big oil companies and raise civil and criminal penalties associated with violating provisions of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.

Nationwide, ocean tourism, recreation and fishing generates nearly $130 billion in economic activity and 2.4 million jobs annually, said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "We need to change the law regarding limits on liability," she said. "A $75 million cap does not come close to addressing the potential damages from a spill of this magnitude."

The first of these bills, the BP Deepwater Horizon Inquiry Commission Act of 2010, cosponsored by  Sens. Boxer,  Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), would establish an independent, non-partisan commission to investigate the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and provide recommendations to avoid future disasters. 

The commission would also investigate BP and other companies involved with the spill, as well as the performance of federal and state agencies responsible for oversight of offshore drilling.  Finally, the commission would assess the consequences of the spill to sensitive and environmentally important areas, as well as the economic impacts to coastal communities.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) introduced the companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

A second bill, dubbed "The Big Oil Pollutant Pays Act,"  cosponsored by Sens. Whitehouse, Menendez and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would overturn the 2008 Supreme Court case Exxon Shipping Co. vs. Baker, which slashed Exxon Mobil Corp.’s punitive damages for its 1989 tanker spill. In that case, the Supreme Court held that unless Congress acted, punitive damages under maritime law had to be limited to the amount of compensatory damages assessed in a case (the damages assessed to make victims whole).  The proposed bill would allow punitive damages based on all facts in a case, without regard to the amount of other damages owed.

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Amendments Act, cosponsored by Menendez and Whitehouse would raise the civil and criminal penalties associated with violating provisions of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, as well as federal Minerals Management Service and Coast Guard safety and environmental regulations promulgated under the act. 

Currently, the civil penalties in the statute are capped at $20,000 per day.  This bill would raise the daily civil penalty maximum to $75,000 ($150,000 per day in case of a threat of serious or irreparable harm to life or the environment). The criminal penalties in the statute are capped at $100,000 and imprisonment of not more than 10 years. The bill would raise the criminal penalty maximum to $10,000,000.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), introduced the first bill that would provide federal money directly to victims of the spill:  $20 million to help Gulf Coast residents file claims with BP for economic damages. At Tuesday's hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) expressed concern about the response, including an "inequity which exists now disadvantaging Louisiana in terms of how much boom is getting there versus other places."

BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay said  the company is working to bring in more containment booms.

--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Oil floats on the surface about 12 miles from the Louisiana marshes on May 6.. Shrimp boat operators nearby tried to mop up as much as they could. Credit: Rick Loomis / L.A. Times

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