By Jim Snyder and Ben Geman - 05/04/10 11:46 PM EDT
BP executives met with members of Congress on Tuesday but did little to dampen criticism of the company or the oil industry as a massive oil leak spreads in the Gulf of Mexico.
“There is going to be a blistering, scalding indictment of the practices the industry engaged in to avoid the kinds of implementation of safeguards that could have removed the likelihood or possibility of this kind of accident occurring,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Energy and Environment subcommittee.
Dave Rainey, BP’s vice president for Gulf of Mexico operations, joined the meeting by phone.
Calmer weather on Tuesday kept most of the oil from reaching the coasts, but Markey said executives told members of Congress that the amount of oil leaking could still sharply increase, raising the potential hazards to ocean habitats and the livelihoods of Gulf fishermen,
oystermen and shrimpers.
Markey said he was told the “spill rate” could increase to 40,000 to 60,000 barrels per day under a worst-case scenario. About 5,000 barrels are streaming into the Gulf each day now.
“My belief is there should be no limit on what they spend in the short run in order to ensure this leak is ended,” Markey said after the meeting.
Senators joined the chorus of criticism against BP and pledged to block any new efforts to expand offshore drilling.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a longtime drilling critic, declared legislation to expand offshore drilling “dead on arrival,” an indictment that would include a sweeping climate and energy bill.
Nelson said he has urged Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a chief sponsor of the energy and climate change legislation, to remove provisions that could encourage more offshore drilling from that bill.
Kerry did not commit to changing the bill, Nelson said, but the legislation “is not going anywhere” if it expands offshore drilling.
Nelson also warned the administration its proposal to expand drilling off the coasts of Alaska, as well as Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states, in addition to new areas in the Gulf of Mexico, faced a steep hill in Congress.
He said the administration’s plan to expand drilling would be “dead on arrival” if introduced as legislation in Congress.
Nelson was also scheduled to meet with BP officials at press time Tuesday evening.
Offshore drilling provisions in climate legislation had been seen as a way to draw support for climate legislation from Republicans and some centrist Democrats, and the lack of drilling provisions could cost some support from the other side.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) told reporters Tuesday that the climate bill would still include offshore drilling provisions.
Energy analyst Kevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners said odds for energy and climate legislation “worsen” without drilling provisions.
But Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said the climate bill includes other carrots like support for nuclear power and “clean” coal that could attract more support.
“I don’t think this is a single-item issue,” Menendez said.
He said the oil spill represents a “compelling reason” to adopt climate and energy legislation because it is designed to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, when burned.
Menendez joined Nelson and fellow New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg at a Tuesday press conference to stop the push for new offshore drilling.
The political debate is moving forward, although the extent of the environmental damage the spill might cause remains unclear.
BP officials were racing to cap three leaks with large containers that could collect the oil and allow it to be pumped to ships on the surface.
Markey said BP officials held out hope for stopping the leak with containment domes but that it was a challenging operation and there were no guarantees of success.
The spill has already rearranged the political debate surrounding offshore drilling.
“When we warned offshore drilling was an environmental hazard, the other side chanted, ‘Drill, baby, drill,’ ” Lautenberg said. “Now they’ve stopped chanting.”
While the political damage might not be permanent, it has become clear that BP faces political liabilities in addition to economic ones.
Administration officials have pledged to keep their foot to BP’s throat for the duration of the cleanup.
Nelson, Lautenberg and Menendez painted BP on Tuesday as a greedy oil company that made in excess of $5 billion in profits last quarter. Lautenberg said the company couldn’t be trusted to pay the full costs of the damage done by its oil spill.
The three have introduced a bill to raise a cap on the liability that “responsible” parties face for economic harm done to shrimpers, fishermen and other people affected by the oil slick.
The current cap is $75 million, although interests can make claims against a $1 billion fund created through a tax of oil products created by the Oil Pollution Act, a law Congress passed in response to the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.
Interests can also sue using other areas of the law, although the legal bar may be higher.
“We have to hold BP accountable,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.
According to a House Democratic leadership aide, White House energy adviser Carol Browner on Tuesday said the Obama administration supports changing the cap on economic damages.
Browner is one of several high-level administration officials who met with House Democratic leadership Tuesday evening to discuss the spill response, the aide said. Other officials included U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, who is leading the federal response to the spill, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.