Senate panel approves creation of competing Gulf oil spill commission

A key Senate panel delivered a rebuke to President Barack Obama on Wednesday in approving the creation of a bipartisan oil spill commission that would effectively compete with his own.


Five Democrats joined all 10 Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in agreeing to create a new bipartisan panel whose members would mostly be appointed by Congress.

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The proposal — offered by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — would establish a commission of 10 whose members would be appointed equally by the two parties, with Obama naming the chairman and congressional leaders selecting the vice chairman and remaining eight members. The commission would have subpoena power, which the Obama-appointed panel does not.

Barrasso said the newly proposed commission — which he said is modeled after the 9/11 Commission — is needed to provide a “truly unbiased bipartisan review” of offshore drilling in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico spill. Obama’s commission “appears to me to be stacked with people philosophically opposed to offshore drilling,” Barrasso said.

In particular, Republicans have criticized the selection of Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke, a leading critic of offshore drilling. But some Democrats raised concerns as well.

“I would suggest to my Democratic friends that if the shoe were on the other foot, and President Bush was the president and he had submitted a list of names like this to us and everyone was related to the defense of oil companies, we would say this is not fair,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said. “And I’m saying to my colleagues this is not fair.”

But Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) added, “If there are questions about the views of the presidential commission … then I would err on the side [of] saying let’s get another point of view on the issue.”

Obama by executive order on May 21 established a commission co-chaired by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham (D) and William Reilly, a Republican who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under former President George H.W. Bush. Its official name is the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

The administration has halted deepwater offshore oil-and-gas drilling while the commission develops recommendations; Reilly has suggested those may not come until next year.

Barrasso’s amendment gives the new commission 180 days to develop its recommendations.

In arguing against creating a new commission, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said Obama “appointed two outstanding individuals to chair that commission.” He called it “bipartisan and … distinguished” and said that another commission is “unlikely to shed more light on the causes of this catastrophic accident and event.” 

But Republicans not only attracted Landrieu — who often sides with Republicans in trying to balance the need to address the Gulf spill with protecting crucial oil-and-gas-industry interests in her state — but also Democrats Shaheen, Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mark Udall (Colo.).

“I think Sen. Barrasso made an excellent point that Congress ought to have its voice heard,” Udall told The Hill.

The bipartisan support for Barrasso’s plan “makes the case that the committee isn’t operating on a pro-forma basis; we listen to each other here,” Udall said.

But the bipartisanship shown in that panel stands in stark contrast to much of the congressional debate on how best to address the Gulf spill and future spills.

Over on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday, Republicans tried, unsuccessfully, to get approval for a plan giving the president the discretion to determine whether and how much to raise an oil company’s liability cap in the event of a major oil spill.

Democrats — who outnumber Republicans 12-7 on the panel — instead easily adopted a proposal from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) that would retroactively remove any liability cap on economic damages for BP and companies involved in future spills. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) was the lone GOP supporter of the Menendez plan.
Republicans got a sympathetic ear from the one centrist Democrat on the panel — Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.).

Baucus voted against the Republican substitute from Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (Okla.) but said he shares some of their concerns about removing the liability cap entirely and will try to make fixes later.