WHAT SPILL? Congress has done 'virtually nothing' to address issues raised by BP disaster

By Chris Kromm, Facing South. When BP's Deepwater Horizon rig catastrophically failed nearly a year ago, it unleashed a gusher of wall-to-wall media coverage -- and promises from politicians of reform.

Indeed, CNN just won a Peabody Award for its "extensive coverage" of the disaster which pumped over 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

But Congress won't be earning high marks for its response to the spill: As the New Orleans Times-Picayune documents in a stinging report, "Congress has done virtually nothing to address the issues raised by the oil spill -- from industry liability limits, to regulatory reform, to coastal restoration, to broader issues of energy policy."

Among the evidence marshaled in the paper's stinging assessment:

  • After the BP disaster, 101 bills were introduced to address the problems raised by the spilll; of those, only 15 remain, and those have little hope of passage.
  • None of the key recommendations of the National Oil Spill Commission created in the wake of the disaster have been implemented, including their call for an independent safety agency to oversee oil drilling.
  • Last year, the U.S. House passed a bill creating new standards for blowout preventers -- the safety device that the commission says failed in the BP disaster -- as well as increased fines for regulation violations and implemented new ethics rules. But it was never taken up in the U.S. Senate due to opposition from Republicans and wavering Democrats.
  • A more modest bill from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to increase the liability limit beyond $75 million and channel money from BP's fines to coastal restoration never made it to the floor last year.

Other proposals dead in the water: Legislation to give the oil spill commission subpoena power like other investigative commissions, and a bill allowing families of the 11 rig workers killed in the BP explosion to collect damages comparable to those allowed for land-based accidents -- which failed after a lone senator objected.

Why the lack of action? One of the biggest factors was a stepped-up lobbying push from the already powerful energy lobby, which spent $75 million between January and June 2010 alone to stave off new regulations.

While Democrats shoulder the blame for failing to pass legislation last year when they held majorities in the house and senate, they have joined with environmentalists in criticizing the new Republican house leadership for being hostile to any new regulations.

In fact, the new GOP leaders -- who enjoy generous backing from energy companies -- have pledged to roll back regulations and push for more drilling.

This week, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), chair of the House Natural Resource Committee, is introducing legislation that would open up new areas to offshore oil-and-gas exploration and speed up the permitting process for drilling in the Gulf.

As Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) -- whose has introduced a bill seen by Gulf Coast advocates and reformers as the last hope for change, but which has almost no chance of passing -- told the Times-Picayune:

"Nearly a year after the BP blowout ... Republicans in the House and Senate are acting as if the accident never happened. Amazingly, House Republicans are trying to pass legislation that would speed up drilling, lessen safety, and give new subsidies to oil companies while preserving billions of dollars in existing tax breaks. We should be reviewing the lessons of the BP disaster, not lessening safety review. Republicans wouldn't be pushing this agenda if the oil industry weren't pushing them to do so."

Another culprit in Washington's inaction: The fading media attention to the spill as time wears on and other disasters, like Japan's earthquake and resulting nuclear plant catastrophes, seize headlines.

But Gulf Coast advocates hope that will change later this month, as the media memorializes the BP disaster one year after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf.