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House Republicans Cool to Oil Spill Commission Recommendations; Obama Considering Executive Action

Robert Menendez plans to reintroduce his bill, the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act, that would lift the $75 million liability cap on oil company damages in the event of oil spills. “The commission is clear: Not only are more spills of this magnitude entirely possible, but taxpayers and coastal communities remain financially exposed,” said Menendez in a statement. “We cannot continue to coddle oil companies by protecting them when they destroy livelihoods – that’s not a privilege given to any individual or small business. Holding oil companies accountable for the damage they cause not only protects taxpayers and coastal families, but it also gives those corporations incentive to actually focus on the safety of their drilling operations.”

Menendez’ bill was blocked in the Senate last year, but they never made a serious effort at it. They sought unanimous consent a number of times but never offered a cloture vote. So if they take their time, it’s possible they could pass that bill now, though probably not in the current form. The Oil Spill Commission’s report gives a boost to those efforts.

But as we’ll see throughout the next two years, the problem is more in the House these days. The Chairs of the revelant committees aren’t reacting favorably to the report.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) greeted the new report by stating that while some ideas may be embraced, proposals that could delay energy production will be “viewed skeptically.”

“Congress needs to ensure that offshore energy production meets the highest safety standards, but as gasoline prices continue to rise we cannot allow ourselves to become increasingly dependent on hostile foreign nations for our energy needs,” he said.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) issued a lukewarm statement about the report as well […] Upton said he was disappointed that the commission “left unanswered the fundamental question of what went wrong.”

“Rather than clearly identifying the root cause of this unprecedented disaster, the commission’s report is limited to general assertions about the enforcement agencies and industry as a whole,” Upton said.?? He warned: “Neither this nor any investigation should be used as political justification for a pre-determined agenda to limit affordable energy options for America.”

Guess which recommendations Hastings and Upton preferred – the one where the industry self-polices themselves! The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the industry-created entity that oversees the nuclear industry, has done a decent job since 1979, but the Oil Spill Commission did not think that just creating an analogue for the offshore drilling industry was sufficient.

While some of the recommendations will require Congressional action – and those face an uncertain future – some can be adopted by the President via executive order. President Obama is weighing this possibility.

Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the commission co-chairman, told The Hill that commission members made the case to Obama that the administration has the authority to begin instituting a number of important safety measures.

Graham, who outlined items in the report that could be addressed through executive action, said Obama instructed his staff to “analyze” the areas in which the administration can move forward without action from Congress.

“He asked his staff to analyze what those areas of executive action were and said that he would take those under his advisement as to which ones to move forward on,” Graham said, though he was hesitant to characterize the president’s response to the commission’s recommendations.

All of the recommendations around reorganizing the Interior Department’s offshore drilling oversight agencies could be achieved through executive order, for example.

After the 9-11 Commission released its report, it was considered an article of faith that those recommendations would be implemented. I guess they don’t make commissions responding to national disasters the way they used to.

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David Dayen

David Dayen