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Democratic Energy Agenda Outmaneuvered by Hypocritical Republicans August 8, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Media, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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In these difficult times for the mainstream media, many traditional outlets are shying away from calling out politicians for obvious contradictions.  Overzealous attempts to avoid accusations of media bias have muzzled the watchdogs that a healthy democracy requires.  In this political free-for-all, the Republican minority is dishonestly yet deftly outmaneuvering the reform agenda.  This is readily apparent in an examination of the oil spill response bill.

I actually pity Sen. Reid right now.  He has an impossible task.  Look at how this mess played out:

The oil spill presented a rare political opportunity to advance the long obstructed climate agenda.  Despite a successful bill in the House, it was clear the Senate was not ready for a similar plan.  So Reid dropped the climate initiatives and pushed an energy bill.

In order to attract even a single Republican vote, the more ambitious and indeed necessary energy solutions were stripped.  As time went on, it became difficult to even call it an “energy” bill.

Still, Republicans and their industry allies demanded that the oil spill response bill contain only provisions pertaining directly to oil spills (a short-sighted strategy that treats symptoms instead of the disease).  Without a supermajority, Reid was forced to remove all but the most uncontroversial energy provisions.

The only remaining contentious item in the bill is the oil spill liability cap.  Democrats want to make oil companies actually pay for the damage they cause.  Republicans are protecting the liability cap on behalf of smaller members of the oil industry.  This should have been a slam dunk.   So what happened?

It is no secret that the larger Democratic tent includes some oil state senators who protect Big Oil, not unlike their Republican colleagues.  One would like to believe, however, that these senators, such as Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK), want to help their party advance the minor energy reforms in this bill and prevent future spills.  Indeed, these two senators are now crafting a liability compromise to remove that roadblock.

In order to strike while the iron was still at least warm, Sen. Reid tried to push the bill through before the August recess.  So Senate Republicans shrewdly prevented Democrats from negotiating, even among themselves.

Republican staffers made it clear that if the bill were opened to amendments, they would hijack the debate and use the opportunity to file divisive, partisan amendments, purely to score political points and drag out the process.  They said their amendments would attack the broader Democratic energy agenda, including cap-and-trade and the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

This is blatant hypocrisy.  After insisting that Sen. Reid’s bill focus narrowly on oil spills, Republicans threatened to derail the oil spill response bill by injecting broader energy issues.  But did the mainstream media call them out for this political duplicity?  No.

Knowing that Republicans would surely back up their amendment threats, Reid was forced to advance the bill without accepting amendments, a process known as “filling the tree.”

Because Reid wasn’t accepting amendments, Republicans attacked Democrats for shoving through another “partisan” bill without accepting any minority input – a lie, because many of the bill’s provisions were actually coauthored by Republicans!  Additionally, the necessary parliamentary maneuver angered centrist Democrats*.

Democrats lost this round decisively.  Republicans hit the bill from all sides.  To me, it called to mind an image of Sen. Reid as a little boy, trapped in a circle of Republican bullies shoving him back and forth between them.

With the compromise in the works, this bill may pass after the recess.  But without media referees, the reform agenda will continue to struggle.

*To be fair, there was concern that more conservative Democrats, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), might also take advantage of the amendment opportunity to limit EPA authority on greenhouse gases.

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Republicans Block Anemic Energy Bill for Oil Industry July 28, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Despite the weakness of the pending oil spill/“energy” bills introduced in the House and Senate this week, Big Oil and their Congressional allies are doing everything they can to make sure we do not learn from BP’s unforgiveable mistakes.

100 days after the Deepwater Horizon spill began, Republicans oppose each of the small shuffles down the right path that these bills contain.

For example, anti-science champion Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) takes exception with a provision that requires natural gas drillers to merely disclose which toxic chemicals they are injecting into the ground near our drinking water supplies during the controversial practice known as “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking.”

Why does Inhofe oppose the simple disclosure of that information?  Because Inhofe and the industry claim that the dangers of toxic chemicals in drinking water are overblown.

Comprehensive energy reform is already dead, and even these bills, which could only euphemistically be called “half-hearted”, have a slim chance because Republicans claim that there is little room for compromise. That is a disgusting claim.  These bills are already grotesquely compromised.  They were so thoroughly watered down in hopes of attracting the necessary supermajority that they are scarcely progress at all.  To demand more compromise calls to mind a limbo player lying on the floor.

Republicans most vehemently oppose lifting the liability cap on oil companies that defile our nation’s environment.  They say that expecting oil companies to pay for the full consequences of the damage they cause will drive “mom and pop” oil companies out of business.  That is hardly a defense of limited liability: if that claim is true, perhaps mom and pop should pursue less risky projects.

Republicans are fighting to preserve the apparent right of every oil company, big or small, to remain blameless for the oil spills they continue to cause in American waters. That is senseless.

With midterm elections approaching, Republicans are pretending to have solutions of their own; toward that end, they are circulating an even bigger joke of an energy bill.  Their “alternative” bill contains energy “solutions” such as lifting the deepwater drilling moratorium and preventing the administration from blocking offshore drilling again. You know, the change we need.

However, the Republican bill does contain a provision that unfortunately may influence the Democratic bills.  Instead of unlimited liability for oil companies that cause spills (making them pay for all the damage they cause), Republicans have a different idea: ironically, the party of limited government wants to make the Department of the Interior set liability limits on each individual rig based on 13 different criteria, including a company’s safety record and the estimated risks involved with the specific location.

This is just another way to protect Big Oil and make sure that taxpayers are the ones who have to pay to clean up oil spills. Oil state Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) are attempting to broker a compromise on oil spill liability.

There is one additional point that must be mentioned.  Many Republicans are trotting out this line in various forms:

“This is a serious subject and it deserves consideration by the United States Senate on behalf of the American people.  We are ready for a serious debate, but it appears the Majority Leader is not.” –Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

This complaint is not just about the bill’s expedited timeline.  It is true that Sen. Reid is trying to have an energy bill passed by the August recess.  Yet perhaps more importantly, Sen. Reid is unlikely to allow any amendments to be added to this bill.

Such a parliamentary maneuver is necessary because Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) is poised with his amendment to delay the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act; the final regulatory bulwark of climate action in the United States.

Rockefeller’s amendment, about which I will write more soon, is similar to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) “Dirty Air Act” amendment that was narrowly defeated in June.  If amendments were allowed, she too would certainly poison this bill with something similar.  Indeed, Murkowski is considering adding the amendment to an unrelated small-business bill as she tirelessly does the bidding of Big Oil in the U.S. Senate.

Oil Spill Legislation Pt. 2 June 22, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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Now that I have devoted two recent posts to what Congress isn’t doing, it’s time once again to look at what little they actually are working on.  There are a couple of interesting pieces of oil spill legislation that have been introduced recently.  These are the most noteworthy:

Let’s start with the bad ones.

S. 3461, introduced by David Vitter (R-LA) on 6/9.  This bill would create a system for resolving claims against BP, which is fine.  But it also seeks to renegotiate BP’s lease on “Mississippi Canyon 252” (where Deepwater Horizon was drilling when it sank).

Lease renegotiation is the Republicans’ preferred vehicle to increase BP’s liability. It has two main problems:

1) It requires BP’s cooperation. In order for this to work, BP would have to say, “Ok, we admit unlimited liability.”  As TPM reported, BP could refuse or even simply walk away from the renegotiation talks.  Public pressure might prevent them from doing this, but there is no guarantee.  And certainly no good reasons to choose this over just lifting the liability cap, which takes us to the second point.

2) Lease renegotiation establishes no future precedent for oil spills.  It is the legislative embodiment of not learning from our mistakes.  If we pass this bill and no other, the $75 million liability cap will still be on the books when the next catastrophic oil spill occurs.  This is why the only cosponsor on this bill is oil industry lackey Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).  Her co-sponsorship indicates that this bill is supported by the oil industry, which in turn indicates that this bill is far too weak.

Also, it could violate the Constitution.

S. 3497, introduced by Scott Brown (R-MA) on 6/16.  This bill would “require leases under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to include a plan that describes the means and timeline for containment and termination of an ongoing discharge of oil.”  The actual legislative text is not available yet, so I don’t know exactly what this bill would require, but that this seems weak to me.  Oil companies saying “and it’ll take us 4 months to fix this thing if it blows” would seem to satisfy the requirements of this bill, nor does this appear to address the strength and efficacy of the oil company plans – is there anything in here to prevent them from submitting plans to protect walruses in the Gulf of Mexico again?

Scott Brown has offered no evidence that his is to be trusted on energy/environmental issues.  That being said, he has found a bipartisan cosponsor for this bill in Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), so we will have to wait and see what is actually in this bill.

Now, the good stuff:

S. 3514: Amends the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prohibit anyone from buying an oil or gas lease unless they pay into an Oil Spill Recovery Fund (unspecified amount so far) or post a bond equal to half of their outstanding liability related to oil spills or cleanups.  If the payment into the recovery fund is low, then what appears to be the intent of the bill – prevent companies in BP’s current situation from expanding their operations before paying up for oil spills – may be undercut.  But the legislative language is not available yet, so we’ll see.  Introduced by Mark Begich (D-AK) on 6/21 with 2 cosponsors.

S. 3492: In light of negligent emergency planning and the failure of all other containment options, this bill would amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to require leaseholders to prepare for and actually drill at least one relief well concurrent to the drilling of any exploratory well in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).  The bill allows for “alternative measures” at least as effective as a relief well to be employed instead of a relief well as authorized by the Secretary of the Interior.  Probably unlikely to pass, but an interesting idea. Introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) on 6/15 with no cosponsors yet.

H.R. 5513: “Spilled Oil Royalty Collection Act.”  Oil companies pay royalties on each barrel of oil produced.  In the “unforeseeable” event of a deepwater oil spill (defined as depth > 200m), this bill would charge oil companies royalties of at least 12.5% on every barrel that comes out of the well, regardless of whether that oil is recovered, burned, “dispersed”…anything.  This bill would come into effect retroactively, right before the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  Were this to become law, it would further highlight the importance of accurate flow estimates for gushers.  Those royalties would certainly not offer much more deterrent than legal liability, but can you think of any reason that spilled oil should be exempted from royalties?  I can’t.  Especially because they are recovering and selling some of it.  Introduced by Chellie Pingree (D-ME) on 6/10 and has 2 cosponsors.

H.R. 5503: Amends the 90-year-old “Death on the High Seas Act” to make it easier for those such as the families of the 11 workers who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion to sue for non-pecuniary losses such as pain and suffering.  The bill was introduced with a statement that read, “We should not allow reckless corporations to use 19th century laws to shortchange their victims.”  Sounds right to me.  Introduced by John Conyers (D-MI) on 6/11 and has 12 cosponsors.

The companion bill in the Senate (S. 3463) was introduced by Patrick Leahy (D-VT) first, on 6/8, and has 5 cosponsors.

S. 3478: Would repeal parts of the Limitations of Liability Act of 1851, which Transocean has invoked to attempt to cap its liability at about $27 million.  This bill wins my personal award for Most Forced Acronym as its name is the “RESTORE Act,” which is supposed to stand for “Remuneration for Ecological and Societal Tolls Occasioned by Reckless Errors.”  Introduced by Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on 6/10 and has 3 cosponsors.

Bills to raise the liability cap:

S. 3472: “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Unlimited Liability Act.”  Completely lifts the standing $75 million liability cap for oil spills.  Introduced by Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on 6/9 and has 24 cosponsors.

H.R. 5520: Requires BP to pay at least $25 billion to a fund like the escrow the White House negotiated, but goes further by excluding this spill from the liability cap.  Introduced by Steve Kagen (D-WI) on 6/14 and has 32 cosponsors.

Bills to lift the deepwater drilling moratorium, which I fully support and have defended at length.

Senate:

S.3489: Introduced by David Vitter (R-LA) on 6/15 and has 1 cosponsor.

House:

H.R. 5499: Introduced John Mica (R-FL) on 6/11 and has 13 cosponsors.

H.R. 5525: Introduced by Pete Olson (R-TX) on 6/15 and has 28 cosponsors.

H.R. 5519: Introduced by Bill Cassidy (R-LA) on 6/14 and has 43 cosponsors, including some notable Gulf Democrats such as Charlie Melancon (D-LA).  Apparently Bill is more popular than John and Pete.

Sanders Amendment Defeated

Also worth mentioning but filed again under what Congress isn’t doing: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced an amendment to cut $35 billion in oil and gas royalties that don’t even add anything to the industry and would instead use $25 billion to reduce the deficit and $10 billion to encourage energy-efficient buildings.  The amendment was first blocked by climate-denier Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-KY) and then defeated in a vote, 61-39.

Full list of oil spill questions and answers here.

New Oil Spill Legislation May 13, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Offshore Drilling, Politics.
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***UPDATE***

It looks like I missed one relevant Senate bill in my sweep yesterday: S. 3309.  On May 6, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) cosponsored legislation with Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) that would raise the tax on oil producers that feeds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to 9 cents/barrel (ooooh, 9 whole cents!).

Then, having made her token gesture of rebellion against her oil industry sponsors, Murkowski (R-OIL) single-handedly blocked the vote for Sen. Menendez’s bill that would raise oil company spill liability from $75 million to $10 billion.  Way to look out for everyday Americans/Alaskans, Lisa.

For a second there I thought I might actually have to praise Murky for taking a small step in the right direction.  Dodged that bullet.

Original Post:

As slowly as Congress acts, 11 relevant pieces of legislation have been introduced since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank on April 22, 4 in the Senate and 7 in the House of Representatives.  I have compiled a list of these bills and their stated purposes beneath this post (legislative text is not yet available).

The most significant bills are the three House bills seeking offshore drilling bans, one to protect the entire Pacific coast, one to protect all of the Atlantic and [whatever will be left of] the Gulf of Mexico, and one to prohibit new offshore drilling anywhere in U.S. waters.

Three more bills (2 Senate, 1 House) attempt to raise the liability cap on what oil companies can be made to pay for the oil spills they cause.

Two more bills fall under the “disaster response/assistance” category (the latter being sponsored by Sen. Landrieu to aid cleanup because that is the only aspect of this disaster that matters to the Senate’s “Handmaiden to the Oil Industry”.

Two more bills essentially penalize the oil industry.  I could phrase that more delicately, but I think it’s justified (and, given their current, monstrous subsidies, Big Oil still comes out way ahead).  One bill proposes a fee on all oil leases to create a fund that will be used for pollution control and “to reduce our dependence on oil” which presumably would fund research or renewable energy.

The other, called the “USE IT Act,” puts a “production incentive fee” on idle leases that oil companies hold but don’t drill on.  This seems like a great idea and has been suggested before 75% of all offshore leases lie unused. Between 2004 and 2008, oil and gas companies received 28776 permits on public land.  They drilled 18,954 of them. During Bush’s second term, Big Oil stockpiled nearly 10,000 leases.  That is why calls for more lease sales are so ridiculous; Big Oil is sitting on plenty of untapped reserves.  Each additional sale is just a land grab.  Why not incentivize them to develop the reserves we have given them?

If you’ve been counting, you know that leaves 1 remaining bill.  To paraphrase Sesame Street, “one of these bills is not like the others.”  Only one of these bills was sponsored by a Republican.  And it shows. Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-LA) introduced a slightly twisted bill on Wednesday.  In a letter explaining his bill, he calls upon Congress and the administration not to repeat Bush’s mistakes and mount an effective response to this threat:

“Five years ago, the federal government failed us during Hurricane Katrina.  I will not stand by and let the government fail us again.”

So far so good.  Then he makes a questionable leap:

“An effective response will require both short-term emergency action and long-term investment. That is why I am drafting legislation to call for accelerated oil revenue sharing with the federal government.

When he says, “sharing WITH” he really means “sharing FROM.”  Revenue-sharing is the legislative mechanism through which Big Oil buys off coastal states (with federal money) so that they will accept the now obvious risks of offshore drilling.  I understand the argument that the states, in foolishly accepting these risks, may deserve a cut of the leasing money.  That is not my primary point here.

Unless this bill explicitly stipulates that transferred oil revenues will be earmarked for disaster mitigation or preparedness, it is a pretty despicable money grab and decidedly untimely gift to the oil industry. The only definite impact of this bill will be to shore up the currently threatened political support for offshore drilling in Gulf states.

The underfunding of state governments is not what will make this disaster so catastrophic.  BP has claimed it will foot the bill and all available state and federal resources are already being brought to bear to do what can be done.  I could be reading this wrong, but this seems pretty low.

Finally, I have not yet written about the new Senate climate bill, but I would be remiss not to mention here that champions like Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Nelson (D-FL) made it clear that they will not support a climate bill if it supports offshore drilling.  The current draft allows states to veto federal plans within 75 miles of their shores.  It also allows neighboring states to veto the project IF a government study concludes that an oil spill could cause them “significant adverse ecological harm,” which looks pretty likely now, doesn’t it?  This, at least, is a good sign.  (Source: E&E Climate Wire, subscription required).

Also, Gov. Crist is calling for a special session to discuss a proposed constitutional amendment to ban offshore drilling off Florida’s coast.  This move is part of his recent dive to the left now that he is running as an independent, but it would be an important move regardless of his motivations.


These are the bills that have been introduced so far:

Drilling Bans:

  • West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2010” (H.R. 5213): to amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to permanently prohibit offshore drilling off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.  Introduced by John Garamendi (D-CA) May 5.
  • No New Drilling Act of 2010” (H.R. 5248): to amend Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prohibit new OCS leasing for any drilling or mining.  Introduced by Frank Pallone (D-NJ) May 6.
  • H.R. 5287: to amend the OCS Lands Act to permanently prohibit offshore drilling on outer continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.  Introduced Corrine Brown (D-FL) May 12.

Raising the Liability Cap:

  • S. 3345: to remove the cap on punitive damages established by the Supreme Court in Exxon Shipping Company v. Baker.  Introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) May 11.
  • S. 3346: to increase the limits on liability under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.  Introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) May 11.
  • “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act of 2010” (H.R. 5214): to require oil polluters to pay the full cost of oil spills.  Introduced by Rush Holt (D-NJ) May 6.

Drilling Penalties:

  • S. 3343: to direct the Secretary of the Interior to establish an annual fee on Federal offshore areas that are subject to a lease for production of oil or natural gas and to establish a fund to reduce pollution and the dependence of the United States on oil.  Introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) May 11.
  • USE IT Act” (H.R. 5102): to direct the Secretary of the Interior to establish an annual production incentive fee on onshore and offshore lands that are leased but where production is not occurring.  Introduced by Edward Markey (D-MA) Apr 27.

Disaster Response/Assistance:

  • S. 3337: to establish a program to provide technical assistance grants for use in assisting individuals and business affected by Deepwater Horizon.  Introduced by Mary Landrieu (D-LA) May 11.
  • H.R. 5241: to establish a commission to investigate the causes and impact of Deepwater Horizon and evaluate and improve the response to such disasters. Introduced by Lois Capps (D-CA) May 6.   More info here.

Republican Bill:

  • H.R. 5267: to accelerate the amount of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas lease revenues shared with States.  Introduced by Anh Cao (R-LA) May 12.