Landrieu, Begich may float compromise liability bill this week

Two moderate oil-state Democrats say they are just days away from floating compromise oil spill liability legislation in the Senate.

Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana yesterday said separately they were close to reaching an agreement on oil spill liability language after restarting talks on the issue last month.

"We're very close to reaching an agreement," Landrieu told reporters yesterday in the Capitol. "I know that we can reach this agreement because we have the exact same goals in mind."

"We're just having to adjust some of our basic parameters," she added.

Begich told The Hill that the lawmakers could introduce the compromise language as early as the end of this week.


Their compromise attempts to address an issue that stalled energy and oil spill-response talks last summer: how to hold oil companies accountable for spills without placing a burden on taxpayers and without shutting out smaller companies from operating offshore.

"I think there's widespread consensus among Democrats and Republicans that the liability limit is too low, that it needs to be raised," Landrieu said. "We want to do that in a way ... that keeps the industry as robust as possible between the large multinational companies and the smaller independent companies."

At issue is the current $75 million liability cap for companies involved in an oil spill. Companies involved in a spill are legally responsible for the full cost of containing and cleaning up a spill. But Congress has capped companies' liability for economic damages -- people put out of work by the spill, fishermen who cannot fish, empty hotel rooms on the beach at high season -- at $75 million.

Some Democrats last year wanted to eliminate the cap completely and included language that would do so in an energy package that stalled. Begich and Landrieu have been vocal opponents of the unlimited liability language but so far have been unable to agree on an alternative.

Both their proposals would raise the initial liability cap to $250 million, after which a mutual industry-fed insurance fund would kick in. Their proposals differ in the amount of mutual insurance companies would be required to carry.

Even if the two reach a compromise, they still have other Democrats to convince before such a measure could move forward. Chief among them is Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the primary author of the unlimited liability language in last summer's energy bill.

Menendez last month reintroduced his unlimited liability language, although he said he is willing to work with other senators "who have constructive ideas to help it pass."

"The bottom line is that what we enact must ensure that if an oil company spills, taxpayers do not pay a dime for cleanup or economic damages and coastal families are made financially whole," Menendez said (Greenwire, Jan. 28).

Landrieu said she and Begich are keeping Menendez and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) apprised of their negotiations.

"We're working closely with Boxer and keeping Senator Menendez informed as to our talks, and hopefully we'll be able to come out with something that's responsible and reasonable," Landrieu said.

Reporter Jean Chemnick contributed.