Senate Energy Drain

Posted Aug. 02, 2010, at 5:46 p.m.

The Senate, for a variety of reasons that can be pinned on both political parties, failed to move ahead with energy legislation to reduce the country’s dependence on imported fossil fuels, which is bad for the economy, the environment and national security. It can’t compound this mistake by punting on a needed update to oil and gas drilling and spill regulations.

After pulling the plug on comprehensive energy and climate change legislation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week released a much smaller bill that deals with drilling, cleaner cars and energy-efficient homes. There are already attempts to water down or undo some of the bill’s provisions, especially those that would tighten regulations on oil and gas exploration and production.

If the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico has taught us anything, it is that the technology to seek and retrieve oil and gas in increasingly remote — and technically dangerous — places has outstripped the capabilities to deal with problems.

Fortunately, serious problems are rare — there are thousands of drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico alone and explosions fortunately are rare. But, as the current spill shows, when there is a problem, the consequences are catastrophic.

One of the most contentious elements of the bill is a provision to eliminate the current $75 million cap on liability for a spill. As BP’s pledge to set aside $20 billion to compensate those harmed by the current spill shows, the $75 million cap is exponentially too low.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in June approved a bill that eliminated the liability cap. Republicans on the committee voted for the measure.

Now, many Republican lawmakers oppose eliminating — and for many even raising — the liability cap. They argue that it will keep small and midsize companies out of the business. It should be remembered that a small company can do as much damage as a big company when it comes to offshore drilling and exploration. Further, the cap is meant as an incentive to ensure companies follow regulations and best practices.

This isn’t the energy bill the Senate should be voting on. It should be addressing the serious problem of our overdependence on oil, which undermines our economy and national security. It also is a major contributor to climate change, which only gets worse the longer the U.S. fails to act.

The House passed a comprehensive energy bill that included a tax on carbon. That required lawmakers from states where coal is produced to look beyond their self-interest to vote for legislation that is long overdue. Their political bravery is now a liability because of Senate inaction.

The Senate can’t go down the same road with this bill. Although it is a mere shell of the more comprehensive bill, it represents the only action Congress will take on energy this year. Updating oil and gas drilling regulations — which hasn’t been done in 30 years — requiring a feasible response plan before allowing drilling and ensuring liability compensation is in line with potential damage are common-sense, if small, steps toward a smarter national energy policy.

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