Minnesota lawmakers want BP’s hide, but what can Congress do?

An oiled Brown Pelican flaps its wings on a piling near Grand Isle, Louisiana, on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Lee Celano
An oiled Brown Pelican flaps its wings on a piling near Grand Isle, Louisiana, on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — House Democrats amped up their rhetoric against BP Tuesday while aiming to consolidate efforts toward a legislative response to the Gulf oil spill.

Rep. Jim Oberstar blamed a “viscious cycle of self-certification,” adding that BP has a “bad record” on safety. Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey went further, saying the company’s leaders are “either lying or they’re grossly incompetent” and “definitely trying to lower their liability” by underestimating how much oil has sprung from the failed Deepwater Horizons leak.

If the amount oil was underestimated, that would suggest the needed response — geared to clean up the amount of oil that was gushing out — was underestimated too, with disastrous effect.

Hearing after hearing is being held (including one in Oberstar’s Transportation Committee today), at each of which BP is excoriated while lawmakers try to find out what went wrong, how to best respond to the spill and what might need to change to make sure such a spill doesn’t happen again.

Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of BP’s hide. And with six House committees (and more in the Senate) that have jurisdiction over some part of the spill and response, they’re all going for it.

The problem is, six committees might yield six different solutions, all of which would have to be reconciled before going to the full House for a vote. That would take time lawmakers say they don’t have.

So House Democratic leaders, recognizing that the current let-me-at-’em strategy won’t yield results if left to its own devices, convened a summit of chairmen whose committees have oversight over the Gulf oil spill to consolidate efforts.

How it will all work out is still very much a work in progress, however House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the group came to an agreement on authorizing subpoena power for a presidential commission looking into the oil spill. The hope is that recommendations from that commission might form the basis of a legislative response.

Meanwhile in the Senate, lawmakers are considering legislation to increase or remove entirely the liability cap on oil spills.

“Most industries do not face caps on their liabilities, so why do oil companies get special treatment?” Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked in a statement following Tuesday’s Environment and Public Works hearing on just such a bill. “These caps only encourage the risky behavior that caused the disaster in the first place.”

Focus on climate bill

That was Klobuchar’s second hearing on the spill Tuesday. Earlier, she and Sen. Al Franken talked about liability caps at a Judiciary Committee hearing. While agreeing that caps need to be lifted, Franken turned his focus to a long-term climate bill that remains stuck in the Senate.

“You’ve never seen a wind turbine explode and kill 11 people. You’ve never seen a 45-day ethanol spill,” he said. “We need to all think about the broader energy crisis that is driving the demand for oil.”

Meanwhile, the hearings continue. And it will only amplify next week, when BP CEO Tony Hayward comes to town for a hearing all his own.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/09/2010 - 11:09 am.

    So how much money did B. Obama receive from BP?

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 06/09/2010 - 01:48 pm.

    Re the Gotzman comment, the issue is not how much Obama has received from big oil…the issue is that too many politicians of BOTH parties have gotten too cozy (and dependant for contributions) with the oil industry. BP alone has a reported 15 lobbyists on staff who were former government employees. The power of big lobbys has grown to incredible and dangerous proportions. This has not served our nation well; and if there is any bright side to this Gulf disaster it is that a): we are now more sensitive to the ramifications of dangerous drilling; and b): we must accelerate our reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

  3. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 06/09/2010 - 02:14 pm.

    The get tough with BP talk from some of the Minnesota policians is a bunch of phony baloney. Let’s face it, Amy Klobuchar protected the interests of big insurance and pharma with health care reform legislation that is a windfall for those companies. Next Amy helped big banks and financiers by voting against breaking up the companies that have gotten too big.

    Let’s face it, Amy Klobuchar is a corporatist and a phony. Her talk about getting tough with BP is nothing but a show.

  4. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 06/09/2010 - 02:17 pm.

    Ron, it would be a safe bet that it was significantly less than the previous petrol sponsored crowd from Texas.

  5. Submitted by Jerry Mayeux on 06/09/2010 - 02:18 pm.

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  6. Submitted by Lori Tolonen on 06/09/2010 - 02:21 pm.

    It is clear we all are at fault for this disaster. No one of us anyore so or less so. BP will pay all legally proscribed penalties. They’ve made that clear. Let’s not have any time-wasting congressional scrims on this. Return the lobbiest monies to those killed on the rig and start creating better energy policy. Influence oil use by high fuel taxes. Vthe consumer has not yet felt the pain of Gulf Wars I and II, nor the pain of the Afghan war. Hit us where it hurts, make us wake up to the reality of our total dependence on oil. We must create new approaches to this rather than more bumper stickers for our institutionally-supported wasteful transportation practices. None of us alone are as dumb as all of us together.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 06/09/2010 - 10:17 pm.

    Don’t get me wrong I sure wouldn’t change out the three for someone more conservative only more progressive, but I have to laugh when itt comes to where these three are at regarding mining expansion and the coal gassification plant in northeastern Minnesota.

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/11/2010 - 09:20 am.

    Sen. Klobuchar rarely misses an opportunity to shoot at a sitting duck, but she’s missed the mark somewhat here. It’s very unlikely that a limit on liability has any direct impact on day to day or strategic decision making. What it does do is shift the risk of loss from the party most likely to profit from the activity to those with an at best indirect interest in the activity. There are better ways to do this, including an environmental-risk tax on all domestic oil production (which could fund a government operated insurance pool).

    Supporters of the limit claim that it permits “small” companies to participate in oil exploration without risking annihilation. [Insert expletive of your choice here]. I’m not concerned with their continuing existence. If you can’t afford to pay for your mistakes, so be it. I am more concerned with the fact that the cost of such mistakes might be borne by innocent parties and by taxpayers.

    My guess: we’ll see some increase in the liability cap with a mechanism for funding a risk-sharing pool. Let’s hope it’s not simply increased taxes channeled into the general revenues.

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