WASHINGTON – The US House this afternoon narrowly approved legislation that would overhaul oil drilling regulations -- lifting a $75 million liability cap in accidents, imposing new oil rig safeguards, and adding new fees on oil companies wishing to expand drilling in the Gulf Coast.
The bill, passed 209-to-193 as House lawmakers leave for a six-week summer recess, is meant as a response to the oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Democrats are hoping they can capitalize on the legislation by appearing to crack down on oil companies.
Republicans warned, however, that the bill would add new taxes that would stifle the fragile economy. They also said the new regulations could discourage oil production in the Gulf, one of the chief domestic energy sources and one that creates jobs throughout the coast.
“This legislation will kill jobs, raise taxes, and increase federal spending,” said Representative Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican. “Democrats are exploiting the oil spill as an excuse to…increase greater bureaucratic regulations.”
Democrats argue that it would add new safeguards for workers, bring in additional federal revenue, and help prevent future spills similar to the one caused by BP.
"If you want to apologize for Big Oil, go right ahead, but the American people are not on your side on this one," Representative James P. McGovern, the Democrat from Worcester, said this morning on the House floor.
The Senate could take similar legislation up next week, although several provisions have met opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats, making its passage uncertain.
The House bill combines provisions from several separate bills that have passed since the oil spill. A few of the components were co-authored by Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat who has been one of the most outspoken Congressional members since the spill began. He has been a frequent presence on CNN and MSNBC, and helped force BP to make its “spill cam” public, a move that elevated the issue with near-constant footage of oil spewing into the Gulf Coast.
One component of the legislation Markey had a hand in would require dozens of oil companies to pay billions of dollars to continue drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
After a court challenge to a 1995, some companies stopped paying some royalties in exchange for the right to drill in the Gulf Coast. As part of that, the federal government refunded more than $2.1 billion in payments; about $240 million went to BP.
Under Markey's legislation, if companies continue to not pay royalties, they would not have access to new leases. The change would bring in an estimated $53 billion, and would go toward reducing the federal deficit.
Another provision would add new protections to whistleblowers. Currently there is no protection for oil and gas workers if they are retaliated against after speaking out on workplace or health and safety violations on drilling rigs. Several workers had criticized the conditions on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
The bill would also add new safety requirements for blowout preventers. The BP preventer failed to stop the Gulf Coast spill.
“BP said the rig could not sink. It did,” Markey said this afternoon on the House floor. “BP said they could handle an Exxon Valdez-sized spill every day. They couldn't. Early on in this disaster, BP was talking about using a ‘junk shot’ where they shoot golf balls into the well. When we heard the best minds were working on this problem, we thought they meant MIT, not the PGA.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.