OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Senate panel passes bill eliminating spill liability cap

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) pushed a bill through committee today that would eliminate the $75 million liability cap on damages resulting from oil spills, dodging what she labeled a "killer" Republican amendment to allow the president to set such caps on a spill-by-spill basis.

"We said, essentially, that the same liability rules, the same accountability that applies to individuals now applies to oil companies," Boxer said. "Why should an oil company have any less, when so many people and businesses rely on their being responsible? I think it's a good day. No more taxpayer bailouts."

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), originally would have set the cap at $10 billion, although Boxer eliminated that cap in the substitute she introduced this morning to the Environment and Public Works Committee, which she chairs. Democrats had attempted to fast-track Menendez's $10 billion limit through the Senate by unanimous consent but were blocked by Republicans.

Republicans led by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee's ranking member, criticized the measure, saying it would actually help "Big Oil" by driving out of business small drillers that could not afford to pay limitless liability claims.

"I suppose it was paramount that today's outcome conform to the talking point that one party stands with Big Oil while the other stands with 'the people,'" said Inhofe. "The irony," he said, is that under Boxer's bill, "drilling in the Gulf will dry up, and the only players left standing will be BP and China's National Offshore Oil Corporation. In other words, Big Oil."

Under Inhofe's amendment, struck down in a 13-6 vote, the White House would have to take into account the availability of insurance for offshore facilities and set case-by-case liability caps based on 11 other factors, including such things as water and well depth, a company's history of regulatory violations and the presence of a blowout preventer.

"This amendment does not cap limits. You can have no cap at all," said Inhofe. "It merely says the president must consider these things. He can sit down and consider these things in 15 minutes if he's so inclined."

But Boxer said that Inhofe's changes would allow a pro-oil administration to set a cap even lower than the existing, $75 million one.

"It is susceptible to political influence, and we have seen too much political influence already," Boxer said, referring to the shakeup at the Minerals Management Service. "At the end of the day, what Sen. Inhofe is proposing is a new way to maintain a cap to the damages."

Boxer also won approval, by a 12-7 vote, for another controversial amendment that aims to force drillers to beef up their oil spill response plans. Existing response plans for the Gulf of Mexico drew anger and ridicule after an investigation found that they listed contact information for an expert who had long since died and mentioned walruses, seals and sea lions as species that could be affected -- though none of those animals lives in the Gulf of Mexico.

"It just says to the oil companies, you have a to have a better plan," said Boxer. "Don't give us a plan that says call Mr. Jones when Mr. Jones is dead. Is that too much to ask? Don't give us a plan that says the walrus is an endangered species when the walrus was never there."

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