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Editorial

Offshore oil: same old drill

Legislation to make offshore drilling safer for workers and the environment has stalled in the Senate. The hurdles shouldn't be insurmountable.

August 23, 2010

Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised that legislation to make offshore drilling safer for workers and the environment has stalled in the Senate; after all, it took 18 months after the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989 for Congress to pass a bill aimed at preventing more such disasters. With all the money poured into lobbying and campaigning by oil companies, and with some states so deeply dependent on the industry, it's very hard to pass new regulations affecting Big Oil. But it shouldn't be this hard.

BP's deepwater drilling failure in the Gulf of Mexico created the worst spill in U.S. history, an environmental and economic catastrophe whose impact will probably be felt for years as oil that has settled in the ocean's depths poisons marine life. Public disgust with BP and lax government regulators is a bipartisan phenomenon; moreover, unlike in 1989, the executive and legislative branches of government are controlled by the same party. So what's the holdup?

Senate Democrats proposed to address some of the more glaring oversights in offshore drilling policy as part of a major energy bill. But even after Democratic leaders jettisoned important provisions to fight climate change and boost renewable power, the threat of a filibuster compelled them to table the measure until after the August recess. Now, insiders are doubtful that the Senate will respond to the gulf spill until after the November elections.

Each party is pointing the finger at the other for the delay, but the hurdles aren't insurmountable. Partisan squabbles over issues such as the $75-million liability cap for oil companies involved in spills (Democrats want to eliminate it; Republicans want to give the president the power to set limits in individual cases) wouldn't be impossible to resolve if lawmakers were negotiating in good faith. In the run-up to an election, though, they're not. Republicans are unwilling to give Democrats any more legislative victories to brag about in November, and Democrats are split between those who want to do right by the environment and those beholden to fossil fuel producers.

We only wish we could be confident this situation would change after the election.

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