BP Gulf Oil Spill 1-Year Anniversary; Congress Yet to Pass Any Major Laws On Oil and Gas Drilling

Congressional gridlock stalls major oil and gas drilling legislation.

April 20, 2011 -- A year after the BP oil spill ravaged the Gulf of Mexico, Congress has passed no major bills on oil and gas drilling.

More than 100 different measures have been introduced. Dozens of hearings have been held. But nothing has been done to make offshore drilling any safer, hold BP accountable or prevent another disaster in the future, congressional lawmakers admit.

It has been a year of a lot of talk, but little action.

Senate Democrats, led in the spring of 2010 by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, wanted to push an ambitious climate change bill that included cap-and-trade language. Faced with stiff opposition from Republicans, the Democrats scaled back the effort, opting instead for a narrower bill that included specific measures directed at the BP oil spill and some modest energy-efficiency proposals.

The Democrats' bill would have revamped offshore oil drilling rules in an attempt to prevent repeat occurrences of the BP spill and removed the $75 million liability cap for damages incurred from the spill. It would have also invested in the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, legislated the Home Star program to boost energy efficient houses and promoted natural-gas vehicles in an attempt to reduce dependency on foreign oil.

Republicans argued that the proposal went too far, pointing to the removal of the liability cap for oil companies, a stance that was even seconded by some oil-state Democrats.

Reid postponed a Senate vote on the scaled-back bill last August until after the summer recess. But the legislation never made any headway, with lawmakers focused instead on the congressional midterm elections and later dedicating the winter's lame-duck session to debating an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, the START nuclear treaty with Russia, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and the DREAM Act immigration measure.

While the Democratic-led House passed a few bills to address the spill last year, the measures eventually stalled in the Senate, failing to gain enough traction to overcome the upper chamber's 60-vote threshold.

Now, on the first anniversary of the April 20, 2010, Gulf rig explosion that triggered the three-month oil spill, some lawmakers are bemoaning the inaction by Congress.

"Congress can and must do more to help rebuild battered communities and prevent a terrible tragedy like this from ever happening again," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. "The families of the Deepwater Horizon victims and the people of the Gulf have every reason to be frustrated by the lack of action in Congress. I know I am, and I'm fighting to do more."

Rockefeller expressed frustration that two bills he proposed were stopped in the Senate last year.

"There's simply no excuse for stalling on this issue," he said. "I will not give up my fight to get these bills passed."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was House Speaker in the 111th Congress, noted today that the only bill that managed to clear both chambers of Congress was legislation to allow the Coast Guard to obtain needed resources from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to help with clean-up costs.

"We still need to enact major reforms," Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "On the anniversary of the BP oil spill, we recommit to reforming the current system to prevent future spills, and to ensuring a full recovery for the Gulf Coast."

But with Congress now gridlocked by a Republican-controlled House and a Democrat-controlled Senate, the chances of passing any sweeping bills on oil and gas drilling reform appear to be virtually nil; even in the wake of the worst environmental disaster in the country's history.