Oil-Soaked Congress Tries to Clean Its Plumage in Time for Election Day
The way the Washington Post reported the story, Congress has finally pushed through “tougher” off-shore drilling regulations for oil companies.
Two key Senate committees approved legislation before the July 4 holiday that purport to change the way the federal government regulates offshore oil drilling and that penalize companies for oil spills. Both measures passed on bipartisan voice votes. One approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee would raise the civil and criminal penalties for a spill, require more safety equipment redundancies, boost the number of federal safety inspectors and demand additional precautions for deep-water drilling. The other, passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee, would remove a $75 million limit on oil company liability and would retroactively remove the liability cap for BP and the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
The Post article stated that these measures ”demonstrat[e] lawmakers’ eagerness to respond to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.” The writer ought to have more accurately said that the measures demonstrate lawmakers eagerness to look like they are responding to the disaster. In the real world, the proposed measures will serve mostly as election-year greenwashing, with little genuine impact.
Just about everyone at this point knows that liability awards will be determined not in the hallowed halls of Congress, but by knock-down, drag-out court fights. More safety precautions can gradually be rolled back or ignored, just as earlier safety regulations were rolled back or ignored in the years leading up to the BP spill. And none of this goes to the basic dilemma of whether drilling at these depths should be allowed at all, when the dangers are so great and the stakes so high. Members of Congress can see the heat the White House has gotten for daring (in an uncharacteristic move) to impose even a partial moratorium on deepwater drilling: a federal judge declared the move illegal, while right-wingers attacked it as something just short of a Communistic plot to destroy the nation’s economy.
As long as Congress tinkers around the edges of the issue, its members can avoid the explosive core. As a character in a famous Italian political novel once said, “If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change.”