Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles —
His voice breaking as he spoke of a brother lost in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, Christopher K. Jones pleaded with lawmakers Tuesday to change a 90-year-old law that limits corporate liability for the 11 lives claimed in the April oil rig disaster.
Jones, a Baton Rouge attorney, displayed photos of his 28-year-old brother, Gordon, including one of an unfinished backyard fort his sibling had been building with his 2-year-old son. Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jones referred to BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward's remark that he "would like [his] life back" and said, "Well, Mr. Hayward, I want my brother's life back."
The hearing came on a day of mounting governmental responses to the continued leak from a BP well created by the rig explosion, including the Interior Department's announcement that it would impose new rules on shallow-water offshore drilling but allow it to resume.
The regulations signaled a more aggressive stance toward oversight of offshore drilling, and focused on suspected contributors to the disaster, including blowout preventers — the device that failed to close the well.
"Shallow water drilling may continue under the stronger safety requirements that we are implementing today," an Interior Department statement said.
New drilling had been stopped after the April 20 well blowout that has been spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico at an estimated rate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day. While shallow-water exploration may resume, a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling remains in place.
Also Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the Survivors Equality Act, which would allow families of those killed in international waters to collect non-economic damages, such as for lost companionship, in addition to lost wages. "You deserve a measure of justice," Leahy told Jones.
The act would amend the 1920 Death on the High Seas Act, which does not permit survivors to collect monetary damages for the loss of care and companionship. In response to the 1996 airplane crash that killed 230 people off Long Island, N.Y., it was previously amended to allow families to recover non-economic damages for relatives lost in air crashes at sea.
Sen. Richard L. Durbin (D-Ill.) said oil companies engaged in risky drilling must shoulder responsibility for the human costs. "If you cannot accept that liability, stay the hell out of the business," he said.
In addition, Congress is considering whether to eliminate the $75-million cap on liability for economic damages resulting from oil spills. Some Republican legislators have expressed concerns that rewriting liability laws could hurt smaller oil companies and benefit trial attorneys, a big source of campaign contributions to Democrats.
Senate Democratic leaders also unveiled a tax bill Tuesday that would raise the per-barrel tax on oil from 8 cents to 41 cents to help pay for an oil spill cleanup fund — 7 cents higher than a House-approved increase.
President Obama, who plans to visit the gulf again next week, had sharp words for BP's Hayward in an interview on NBC News' "Today" show that aired Tuesday. Considering some of the chief executive's controversial comments since the spill — including the "I'd like my life back" remark and a statement that the environmental impact of the spill would probably be "very, very modest" — the president said: "He wouldn't be working for me after any of those statements."
In response to criticism that his "cool and calm and collected" style was insufficiently tough for the occasion, Obama replied: "I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick, right?"
BP shares took another drubbing after his remarks, hitting a 15-month low in trading as they closed at $34.68, down $2.08, on the New York Stock Exchange. Since the disaster, BP shares have lost $81 billion, or 43% of their market value.
Hayward will make his first public appearance before Congress next week, testifying before the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee.
As workers continue struggling to stanch the oil leak, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of the federal response, said Tuesday that a recently installed cap had captured nearly 14,800 barrels, or about 620,000 gallons, the day before. BP has said that it would donate net proceeds from collected oil to a fund that will restore damaged wildlife.
University of Georgia scientists who returned from a two-week research cruise in the gulf said Tuesday they had found a 15-mile-long undersea concentration of oil and gas, 3 miles wide and 600 feet thick at its core, with levels of methane gas that were 10,000 times the norm.