Oil company liability talks stall in Senate

May 18, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Efforts to raise the cap on oil company liability has stalled in the Senate. Senate Republicans are refusing to take up a Democratic bill that would raise the maximum from $75 million to $10 billion.

On Capitol Hill Tuesday, there was more grilling of oil executives involved in the BP oil spill blowout.

"This is for the cameras -- nothing will change unless there are new laws on the books," says former Labor Secretary Robert Riech, who believes the first new law should be lifting the cap on how much oil companies can be charged for cleaning up. "What we need is a law -- a new law -- that very clearly lifts the cap from $75 million to $10 billion or $25 billion, and it's got to be enacted right away," he said.

Shell Oil is currently planning to move forward with new offshore drilling in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. We asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, if Congress would halt that until the company can prove it can prevent another disaster.

"What we're doing in the Congress is to subject... we want the facts, we want the facts. How did this happen? What steps along the way could have been done differently in terms of the technology? Who was responsible for what?" she said.

In the meantime, Pelosi says the administration will refuse to sign off on any new drilling, but Senate Republicans are refusing to lift the cap on oil company liability.

"Why should we trust either the oil companies or Congress, who says over and over again we are going to prevent this from happening ever again and yet doesn't act," says Reich.

Reich says the fact is oil companies are major contributors to congressional campaigns. Over the past five years, the oil and gas industry has donated the following amounts to Bay Area lawmakers: $108,000 to Pelosi (ranked 124th), $79,250 to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., (ranked 152nd), $19,100 to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., (ranked 336th), and $18,500 to Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, (ranked 341st). And these are not particularly oil friendly lawmakers.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, got double what Pelosi received. Tuesday, she encouraged the secretary of the interior to open up drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"Where we have the potential of about 16 billion barrels of oil," she said.

Secretary Salazar said no to that request, but it illustrates the clout the industry has with some members of Congress. Tuesday, the Sierra Club filed suit against the government's Minerals Management Service. The lawsuit intended to force the government's service to conduct monthly inspections of oil rigs. Those inspections are required under current law, but on the rig that blew out, the MMS had missed one out of every four of those inspections.


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