WASHINGTON — As the Gulf of Mexico focuses on cleaning up the mess left by the BP oil spill, the question facing the nation’s capital is: Will Washington clean up its act, too?
Congress is considering stricter regulation of oil exploration, and the Obama administration has pledged to overhaul the disgraced federal agency that oversees oil drilling.
Already, however, some of the toughest proposals are facing stiff opposition from Republicans and some Gulf Coast Democrats whose constituents rely on the oil industry for jobs.
The oil industry also is likely to fight the changes. It contributed more than $35 million to federal political candidates and parties in the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
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For now, though, public anger over the BP disaster runs so high that lawmakers would skirt the issue at their peril.
“It would be foolish for Congress to think that voters don’t care about these issues,” said Mandy Smithberger, an investigator with the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. “They might not care about all the logistics, but it’s been made extraordinarily clear that our system for overseeing offshore drilling is broken.”
Many environmental activists are skeptical, however, that Congress can reach agreement on legislation before it adjourns for the November elections.
“The biggest impediment to getting bills passed is time,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of Offshore Energy Reform for the Pew Environment Group. “There’s so much they have to do before recess.”
The House Friday approved legislation that includes many of the Democrats’ toughest proposals: raising the liability limits on offshore oil rigs and production facilities; making responsible parties liable for 100 percent of oil spill cleanup costs and damages; requiring all rigs drilling off the U.S. coast to adhere to U.S. safety standards; and giving subpoena power to a bipartisan presidential commission that’s investigating the BP disaster.
The 209-193 vote fell sharply along party lines, however, with more than two dozen Democrats voting against the bill, an outcome that foreshadows a difficult road ahead in the Senate, where almost nothing can be accomplished without the support of all Democrats and some Republicans.
In the Senate, Republicans are blasting a stripped-down energy bill that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., unveiled last week. The bill would raise the $1 billion liability cap of the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to $5 billion and would eliminate the current $75 million liability cap on economic damages from oil spills.
The House of Representatives bill also would extend federal whistleblower protections to offshore oil and gas workers who report safety violations, fraud, abuse and other problems. Current laws don’t cover these workers.
In the most visible change so far, the Obama administration has renamed the Minerals Management Service — the Interior Department agency whose oversight of offshore drilling is now largely considered a failure — the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
The House legislation would split the agency into three bureaus to handle lease sales, royalty collections and safety inspections — tasks that were originally all performed by the MMS under a system in which government investigators found gross corruption and misconduct.
Advocates say that divvying up the MMS’ responsibilities won’t be enough to ensure better oversight. The culture of an agency that has a reputation for coziness with the industry must change, they say, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar must find civil servants with enough knowledge to regulate the offshore industry effectively. Many of MMS’ offshore drilling regulations were drafted by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s major trade group.
Steven Thomma and Andrew Seidman contributed to this report.