While regulators and the oil industry have made some changes to boost the safety of offshore drilling since the nation's worst oil spill three years ago, federal lawmakers have yet to adopt a key bill needed to hold the oil companies fully and financially accountable in the event of another big spill, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson charged today.
The Florida Democrat is the lead cosponsor of the bill in question, which seeks to make the party responsible for an offshore oil spill liable for all discharge removal costs plus damages for each incident. Under current law, an oil company's liability is limited to removal costs plus only $75 million -- a figure that pales to the estimated $20 billion to $40 billion price tag of the 2010 BP spill.
"In a nutshell, the current cap on liability means whatever an oil company doesn't pay, it's possible that innocent individuals and businesses could go uncompensated," Nelson said.
Nelson's comments come on the heels of a new report out this week blasting Congress for not doing enough to prevent a repeat of the BP disaster. Members of a former presidential commission that investigated the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico have formed a new group that said in a report yesterday Congress has done little in the way of reforms since the BP disaster.
This Saturday, in fact, marks the third anniversary of the disaster stemming from the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, which caused 4.9 million barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf over nearly three months. When BP's Macondo well blew up off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, 2010, it triggered the nation's worst oil spill and an explosion that claimed the lives of 11 workers.
While BP has agreed to pay damages, there was some question as to whether it would have had to do so in excess of the $75 million figure in current law, absent a finding of gross negligence or willful misconduct. The legislation authored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) - called the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Unlimited Liability Act -- would amend the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to make the party responsible for an offshore facility from which oil is spilled into navigable waters or adjoining shorelines liable for all discharge removal costs and damages.
"We can't be in a position of relying on the largesse of an oil company after a major spill," said Nelson, who will present the legislation on Friday at a gathering of officials in St. Petersburg to mark the third anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon accident.
The Gulf Restoration Network, National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club are holding a Deepwater Horizon event also featuring U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who, like Nelson, is a strong advocate for keeping oil rigs away from Florida's beaches and tourism. The event starts 11:00 a.m. at Demens Landing Park in St. Petersburg. Besides Nelson and Castor, Dr. Steven A. Murawski, a noted research professor at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, will be there and provide an update on the scientific studies of the spill on the Gulf environment, as well as efforts to find better ways to respond to a future spill.
Meantime, Congress has faced the Menendez-Nelson liability cap legislation before, and has refused to move ahead on the bill in the face of stiff lobbying from the oil industry. That's one reason why this year Nelson is seeking the help of the new Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. In a letter to Jewell on Thursday, he requested a meeting with her and, hopefully, her support for the Big Oil bailout prevention bill. "Fact is, we need every tool in our bag to counter the heavy lobbying presence of Big Oil on Capitol Hill," Nelson wrote.
Nelson said Menendez will formally file the bill next week - another way of marking the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Nelson is no stranger to legislative issues on the oil industry. Last year he won praise from a varied group of environmental advocates for his efforts as co-sponsor of the RESTORE Act that brings restoration dollars directly to the Gulf. Without passage of RESTORE, the billions of dollars of BP Clean Water Act fines would likely have disappeared into the general revenue of the federal and state governments. The same commission that blasted Congress for its inaction on reform since the spill cited the RESTORE Act as one of the few significant achievements.