Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — A congressional stampede to pass oil spill legislation gathered momentum Thursday as a Senate committee voted to impose tougher penalties on water polluters, and lawmakers unveiled a comprehensive bill to strengthen environmental and safety rules on offshore drilling.
The measures expected to move forward in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout also include a rewrite of decades-old maritime liability law and a tightening of ethics rules for officials who oversee offshore drilling.
"The incident is a game-changer in the way we manage America's offshore energy resources," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), who introduced the measure to strengthen off-shore drilling regulations.
The flurry of activity came as alarm continued to mount on the Gulf Coast. A mass of tar balls swept into the Mississippi sound, a biologically rich area surrounding Mississippi's barrier islands. And Florida officials closed a quarter-mile section of the popular Casino Beach in Pensacola Beach after thick masses of oil washed ashore.
"It's pretty ugly — there's no question about it," said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
It is unclear whether Congress will pass a series of individual measures or wrap legislation into a sweeping energy bill that would also seek to boost renewable resources and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
That legislation, which had passed the House but stalled in the Senate before the oil spill, is backed by President Obama and many Democrats as a way to address global warming. But it is opposed by the oil industry and other businesses, along with most Republican lawmakers who say it will boost energy costs.
The lack of consensus was evident Thursday as lawmakers broke into partisan finger-pointing over the administration's efforts to impose a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling.
Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, accused the administration of "putting ideology over scientific integrity" in imposing the moratorium. During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, he also attacked the presidential commission that is investigating the rig explosion as "stacked with people who philosophically oppose offshore exploration."
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who was testifying before the committee, shot back: "There is nothing political about this. It's an issue about safety and making sure that we're protecting the environment."
The moratorium was struck down by a federal judge earlier this week who said the administration had failed to prove that the 33 rigs affected by it were operating unsafely. On Thursday the judge declined to delay his ruling while the government appeals the decision.
The administration is preparing a detailed brief to argue the necessity of the moratorium. Salazar told the committee that initial reports on the April 20 blowout suggest that "there were actions taken before April 20 which might have ended up creating this disaster, and perhaps no level of enforcement or regulation could ever have prevented that because of the recklessness that occurred here."
The Environmental Crimes Enforcement Act, the water-pollution bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would require restitution to victims when oil companies or others violate the Clean Water Act. Currently, restitution is not mandatory. Another provision would mandate new guidelines so that prison terms reflect the seriousness of an environmental crime.
Meanwhile, a group of senators called on Transocean to delay any dividend payment until the company's liability for the gulf disaster is determined. "It seems inexplicable to us that, while a full accounting of your company's financial responsibilities is not yet clear, you are still planning to issue $1 billion in dividends as if no accident had occurred," the senators wrote in a letter to the company's chief executive.
BP's new public face, Robert Dudley, met with administration officials in Washington on Thursday, and told reporters that the company was back to recovering 25,000 barrels a day from the spill after a 10-hour hiatus Wednesday in which the containment cap had to be removed and adjusted.