Democrats Try to Seize Initiative on Oil Spill

By Larry Margasak | June 9, 2010 | 6:24 AM EDT
Washington (AP) - President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are trying to prevent a political disaster along with the environmental one taking place in the Gulf of Mexico as they try to convince Americans frustrated by the ongoing oil spill that BP and Republican coziness with the oil industry are to blame.
Within a few hours Tuesday, the White House said President Barack Obama would visit the Gulf Coast again next week, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set a strict deadline for new oil spill legislation.
Obama will return for his fourth oil spill-related visit to the region -- this time a two-day trip -- Monday and Tuesday to receive updates in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Four Democratic-controlled committees were to hold hearings Wednesday, covering spill cleanup, financial responsibility, liability caps and offshore drilling safety.
All this while a Washington Post poll showed nearly half of those surveyed -- 48 percent -- now say Obama does not understand the problems of people like them, the highest percentage of his presidency.
And a Pew Research Center poll shows a sharp rise in the number of people who claim Obama's policies are making the economy worse rather than better.
Pelosi told her committee chairmen to produce new legislation by July 4 to cope with the spill and prevent future environmental disasters.
The House then would act on the bills before Congress' summer recess, set to begin Aug. 9, a leadership aide said.
Pelosi and Democratic committee chairmen said legislative reforms could address changes in the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, which has been found to be too close to the companies it's supposed to regulate; a huge increase in the $75 million liability cap for spill damages under federal law; increased protection of oil industry workers; and better readiness and response times.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats on Tuesday proposed a fivefold increase in the tax that oil companies pay into a spill liability fund. The legislation would raise the tax on oil produced offshore from 8 cents a barrel to 41 cents a barrel -- 7 cents higher than legislation that passed the House last month.
Pelosi and her chairmen sat around a table in her office Tuesday in what was billed as an opportunity for news photos and videos. But once reporters started asking questions, the speaker and her chairmen got rolling.
"Democrats have tried to rein in Big Oil over time with our legislation and our initiatives," she said, while Republicans "have always protected Big Oil."
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said BP initially lied about the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf because the amount of the government's fine was based on gallons spewing from the underwater well. The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig being leased by BP exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and setting off a massive and continuing release of oil into the Gulf.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said BP had a poor safety record, with a spill in the North Slope of Alaska and an explosion at a Texas City, Texas, refinery in 2005 that killed 15 people.
"It is very clear whether it is on the North Slope, whether it is in the refineries or in the offshore, they can't keep oil in the pipeline," Miller said.
One of the chairmen at the table, Rep. Henry Waxman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has asked the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to consider, among other things, the corporate safety culture of BP; what role, if any, cost-cutting may have had in well design and testing; BP's oversight of subcontractors; and whether any parallels could be drawn between the causes of the Gulf spill and the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15.
Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland said he is committed to having his agency investigate the Deepwater Horizon accident. But first he will check with his two fellow board members to identify the resources needed to do the job.
The safety board investigated the Texas City refinery accident and issued a scathing report faulting BP management.
Within a few hours Tuesday, the White House said President Barack Obama would visit the Gulf Coast again next week, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set a strict deadline for new oil spill legislation.