Massive oil spill in Gulf of Mexico shifts debate on offshore drilling

Democrats and Republicans are both scrambling to adapt to the new political reality created by the massive oil spill endangering the Gulf Coast.


Republicans who rallied to the cry of  “Drill, baby, drill” in 2008 have been reminded of the risks offshore drilling poses to the environment, tourism and other industries.

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Democrats opposed to offshore drilling, meanwhile, are capitalizing on newly gained political leverage from the worst spill in decades.

New Jersey Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, as well as Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), are holding a press conference Tuesday to highlight the risks of drilling.

The White House and President Barack Obama, who recently announced his support for new offshore drilling, continued to mount an intense effort to scuttle claims that they did not react quickly enough to the spill, which appears to be worsening on a daily basis.

The political maneuvering took place as BP, which leases the offshore rig that exploded and led to the spill, said the flow of approximately 5,000 barrels a day that is leaking into the Gulf has not slowed down.

The company has come under fire in Washington over the disaster and hopes to cap three leaks with huge containment domes that are under construction. If that doesn’t work, BP is also drilling a relief well that would stop the leak, but this solution could take 90 days.

Government officials said the spill was headed toward the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, where it poses dangers to a fishing industry and the environment.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, on Monday said he’d changed his mind about a new offshore drilling project off his state’s coast because of the disaster.

In contrast, Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate who electrified the GOP convention with her “Drill, baby drill” chant, expressed sympathy over the disaster, but told her followers on Facebook it had not changed her position that offshore drilling would make the U.S. more secure and prosperous.

In Washington, some Republicans have avoided discussing the issue of drilling in relation to the spill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) talked about the spill as the Senate returned to session Monday and avoided mention of expanded energy production except in passing.

“Tragedies like this are a reminder of the dangers so many Americans endure every day in the work of keeping America moving, and of the fragility of the environment,” he said.

Across Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered a statement Monday that the incident only underscores the need for more “environmentally responsible development of America’s energy resources.”

“The Obama administration is right to insist on a full investigation of the events leading up to this tragic, deadly, unacceptable accident and the oil spill that resulted,” said Boehner, who for years has attacked Democrats for failing to expand offshore drilling.

“At the same time, this tragedy should remind us that America needs a real, comprehensive energy plan, like Republicans’ ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy, which includes more of everything: more clean and renewable sources of energy such as nuclear power, wind, and solar energy, more alternative fuels, more conservation, and more environmentally responsible development of America’s energy resources.”

The White House on Monday continued to remind reporters that it responded to the man-made disaster in the Gulf Coast from the moment the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up April 20.

Administration officials have also pressed BP to boost its response to the spill. The rig that blew up was leased to the oil giant for drilling a deepwater prospect, but was owned and operated by the company Transocean Ltd.

Nelson, Menendez and Lautenberg, all longstanding opponents of increased offshore drilling, also moved Monday to hit BP.

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The three Democrats introduced a bill to raise a cap on damages under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA), a measure passed in 1990 after the Exxon Valdez spill to help cover cleanup costs of future disasters.

The act requires the responsible party to pay for cleanup of an oil spill, but it also sets a $75 million ceiling on its liability for economic damages sought by small businesses, local governments and other interests that have been harmed by the spill. The legislation introduced on Monday would raise the cap to $10 billion.

“The bottom line is that oil spills can leave massive holes in the economy. If you spill it, you should have to fill it,” Menendez said in a statement.

While the White House and Democrats laid pressure on BP, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, announced he would investigate whether BP was improperly awarded safety certificates from the Interior Department.

The probe will focus on whether Minerals and Management Services (MMS, the agency within Interior that has jurisdiction over offshore drilling) has established necessary safety regulations, and whether MMS “improperly awarded safety certifications to BP, Transocean  and the Deepwater Horizon rig.”

One analyst suggested that the administration is not at risk of facing the massive political damage faced by the George W. Bush administration over its slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

“It is very difficult to cap this well. It is a technical problem, not a political problem that is happening right now,” said Alan Hegburg, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Separately, the House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to hold a May 12 hearing with top officials from BP America, Transocean and drilling-services contractor Halliburton.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the Energy and Commerce chairman, has sent the companies letters in recent days requesting information about the spill’s causes and accident response plans.

Nelson is focusing on whether the Interior Department rules are too lax. On Monday he asked Interior’s inspector general to review whether the oil industry “exercised influence” over rules that Nelson said do not require adequate backup systems to cap spilling undersea wells.

Third parties can still sue BP under different laws other than the OPA.

Lisa Novak, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard, said the cap on damages under OPA, “does not concern the potential state liability regimes that are expressly permitted under federal law. Nor does it address the potential for civil and criminal liability under various other applicable federal laws … or any applicable state laws.”


Jim Snyder contributed to this report.