Op-Ed: The Demise of the Spill Bill

The decision this week by the Majority Leader to table oil spill legislation was deeply disappointing to everyone who wanted to see constructive policy come out of the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico.

More than 100 days have passed since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank to the ocean floor. What we’ve learned in that time has made clear that our offshore energy regulations need reforming. Even though this has been a difficult year for the Senate, I had faith this disaster would bring us together to pass responsible legislation.

I had some basis for my faith because bipartisanship was exactly what the members of the Energy Committee accomplished at the end of June in unanimously passing the OCS Reform Act. The resulting bill wasn’t perfect, but the process was open and fair.

In the five weeks since completing our bill, we’ve waited as the majority counted votes for measures that had nothing to do with the spill. As time ran out before recess, the majority shifted gears, went into a backroom and came out with a brand new bill. But with no time left for debate or amendments, the majority was forced to admit the obvious just a few days later: its bill faced bipartisan opposition and so it would be shelved.

This announcement was rightly met with consternation. In the wake of one of the worst spills in history, not even one day of floor time out of more than 100 was set aside to consider a legislative response. And while the politics surrounding a bill may make it seem like a herculean task, the Senate’s job is rather straightforward. We must ensure a safe, accountable and competitive offshore industry, provide reasonable support for oil spill prevention and response, and never leave taxpayers on the hook for the costs of cleanup or damages.

A bill focused on those goals would pass the Senate by a wide margin. But what the majority unveiled last week was more than 400 pages loaded with poison pills, huge spending programs and a sizeable tax increase. We were also told it would not be open to amendment. When you reflect on how rushed and how rigid the process was, the demise of the majority’s bill was hardly surprising.

Had it not failed on process, substance would have done the trick – both in terms of what was included and what was not.

The provision for unlimited strict liability would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs, billions of dollars in lost revenues and a substantial weakening of America’s energy security. Other sections would have harmed the maritime industry and, in the spirit of never letting a crisis go to waste, increased federal spending by nearly $15 billion.

The omissions were just as damaging. The majority’s bill contained nothing to address the administration’s economically-devastating offshore moratorium and nothing to ensure revenue sharing for states that risk their shorelines to produce America’s energy.

The real reason the Majority Leader pulled the plug is because he didn’t have support from his own caucus. Instead, there was a likelihood that the Republican bill, the Oil Spill Response Improvement Act, would attract bipartisan support.

The Republican proposal, by comparison, imposed new safety and technology standards for offshore operators and formerly reorganized the agency in charge of offshore regulations. It also brought a timely end to the administration’s job-killing moratorium once new safety standards were met.

It raised the liability cap, authorizing the President to set liability limits on individual projects based on a series of risk factors, including water depth, and safety record. And we established a mutualized risk pool for offshore operators to ensure taxpayers never pay a dime for spill response and damages, but, just as importantly, allows small and mid-sized companies to continue operating in our waters.

There was no need for the Senate to go into August recess having accomplished nothing on oil spill legislation. All we needed to do was follow the correct process, avoid provisions that destroyed jobs and avoid unrelated spending.

The majority’s bill failed on each of those fronts. Still, I’m encouraged by reports that we will revisit this subject in September. I hope, at that point, the Majority Leader will follow Senate process and reach across the aisle for input and ideas. I hope he will allow a bipartisan chairman’s mark for provisions related to safety and environmental reform and a workable liability provision, based on either the Republican bill or the intriguing compromise that Sen. Mary Landrieu has proposed. It should end the moratorium and provide revenue sharing to states that produce America’s energy off their coastlines.

That’s a recipe for successful legislation. And while I’m deeply disappointed we must wait to start this work until September, it’s abundantly clear why its fate remains uncertain as of today.

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