By Ben Geman - 04/29/10 10:57 PM EDT
A senior House Democrat wants the CEOs of the country’s largest oil companies to testify on Capitol Hill, signaling increased political pressure on the industry following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Democratic push for climate legislation.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) — a chief ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — is calling on top officials from ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, BP and Shell to appear before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which he leads.
“From the health of our economy to the health of our environment, it’s time for the American public to hear from the oil companies,” Markey said Thursday in a prepared statement. “Their opinions and answers on the issues of energy policy are vital given the push in Congress to construct a comprehensive energy independence strategy for our nation.”
The hearing — which has not been scheduled — will provide a high-profile forum for discussing environmental risks in the wake of last week’s oil rig explosion, which has created a major spill that crews are struggling to contain. An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil per day are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico from the damaged subsea well.
The rig is owned and operated by Transocean but leased to BP.
Oil industry CEOs made several closely watched joint appearances on Capitol Hill in 2008, a year that saw record crude oil and gasoline prices unfolding against a presidential election.
Markey is a longtime antagonist of the oil industry on everything from prices to climate change.
On Thursday he cited the sharp rise in first-quarter profits that several companies have announced on the strength of higher crude oil prices, although they remain far below the highs of 2008. Markey noted that gasoline prices are creeping upward.
The hearing also follows the Obama administration’s announcement in late March that it will allow expanded offshore oil-and-gas leasing — a plan that has drawn criticism from environmentalists and some Democrats.
Markey’s hearing is one of several planned on Capitol Hill about the drilling plans and the oil spill.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) — who supports wider offshore development — is holding a May 6 hearing on the spill and administration drilling plans. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will testify.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) on Thursday announced a May 26 hearing on offshore drilling and the “implications” of the rig disaster.
The spill is commanding high-level White House attention, and President Barack Obama received a detailed briefing Thursday. A broad federal investigation is under way.
Spokesman Robert Gibbs on Thursday appeared with a suite of top administration officials — including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — to discuss the federal response to the disaster as the spilled oil moves closer to fragile shorelines. Napolitano, Jackson and Salazar will visit the site Friday.
Gibbs and the other officials downplayed links between the spill and the administration’s plan to allow wider offshore drilling, saying they are focused on the current incident, which they labeled a spill of “national importance.”
But Gibbs acknowledged that the disaster could alter the president’s view on the safety of expanded drilling, saying it depends on what’s determined to be the cause of the accident.
“Could that possibly change his viewpoint? Well, of course,” Gibbs said.
“I think our focus right now is, one, that the area, the spill, and two, also to ultimately determine the cause of it and see the impact that that ultimately may or may not have,” he added.
The administration plan calls for expanded leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and in Arctic waters, as well as lease sales off the coast of mid-Atlantic and southeastern states.
Some Democrats are increasing their effort to slow increased development in the wake of the spill.
In a letter to Obama on Thursday, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he is filing legislation that would bar the Interior Department from acting on administration plans to expand offshore drilling, including seismic testing and other exploration activities.
Nelson also said the president should call for an “immediate halt” to industry drilling of test wells and other exploratory activities during the investigation of the accident and identification of ways to prevent future disasters.
This story was posted at 2:31 p.m. and updated at 6:57 p.m.