The Senate and the Spill

Editorial
The New York Times
September 27, 2010

The Coast Guard’s announcement a week ago that BP’s runaway Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico was “effectively dead” brought a collective sigh of relief from the company, the citizens of the Gulf Coast and President Obama — indeed from anyone who for nearly five harrowing months had been transfixed by one of the worst environmental disasters in American history.

Unfortunately, it may also have given the politically paralyzed United States Senate one more excuse not to move forward on a controversial but necessary bill that would build on the lessons of the gulf and make offshore drilling safer in the future.

The House has already passed such a bill. It would be irresponsible of the Senate not to do likewise. The Senate has not distinguished itself on environmental issues over the last two years, failing even to vote on comprehensive energy and climate legislation that the House had passed. The least it can do is muster a meaningful response to the spill.

Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has in hand an honorable bill that is the product of endless hearings by several committees and could be quickly brought to the floor. Like the House bill, it would tighten environmental safeguards and reorganize the agency at the Interior Department that oversees drilling in order to eliminate the conflicts of interest that allowed BP to manipulate the system and short-circuit regulatory reviews.

Like the House bill, it would also require companies to furnish more detailed response plans before receiving permits to drill, and would eliminate the $75 million liability cap for companies responsible for a spill. That cap is moot in BP’s case, since the company has already agreed to pay $20 billion in damage claims. But lifting the cap would provide a powerful incentive to other companies to behave responsibly.

As an added fillip, both bills would provide long-term financing (from oil company fees) for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the government’s main program for acquiring open space.

With so much to like, what’s the holdup? Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, complains that lifting the liability cap would discourage smaller drillers without deep pockets that could be bankrupted by a single accident. Surely this can be resolved with compromise language providing for a sliding scale.

The real reason — no surprise here — is intense opposition from the oil companies and their allies in both parties who claim, without persuasive evidence, that the new rules, fees and penalties would raise costs, inhibit domestic production and increase American dependence on foreign oil. The Senate should ignore these complaints, pass a bill and then move forward to a conference with the House.

If it doesn’t, voters should hold it accountable. Congress cannot undo the effects of the spill. But it can ensure a safer future.

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