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U.S. Policy Experts: Premature to Pass Oil Spill Liability Bill

Pres. Obama should push renewable energy 'with all the force he can muster' now, rethink 'broken' oil liability system later

By Elizabeth McGowan

May 27, 2010

WASHINGTON—BP's vow to pay what chief executive officer Tony Hayward calls "all legitimate claims" connected to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill might be reassuring to the naïve.

But some attorneys and politicians interpret "legitimate" as a weasel word — one that could allow the oil giant to wriggle out of its obligation to cover economic damages caused by massive amounts of oil flowing from a broken deepwater well since April 22.

"When BP says it will pay all legitimate claims, what is legitimate to them?" Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney David Pettit inquired in an interview with SolveClimate. "I don't know."

That same suspicion has caused Senate Democrats to spar repeatedly this month with Republicans over proposed legislation to significantly raise the $75 million corporate liability limit and to also question the Obama administration's seeming reluctance to advocate immediately for a higher cap.

"Clearly, $75 million won't be enough. It's gone already," Pettit said about the compensatory money slated to reimburse fishermen, the tourism industry and others for lost profits and wages. "Yes, we need to increase those numbers, but we need to find out what actually happened in the Gulf before picking those numbers." 

Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law professor at the in South Royalton, agrees with Pettit that debating the liability cap at this juncture before all of the facts are in about the unfolding catastrophe is likely academic and premature. He questions why Congress would play its trump card early on when waiting would be more strategic.

"The federal government has plenty of authority to sock it to BP," Parenteau said. "I don't see any need to rush into a piece of legislation based on a limited and unclear factual situation. It won't change one thing about the response to the spill and the eventual calculation of damages. I cannot see a court absolving BP for the consequences of this disaster."

Instead, he is puzzled as to why President Obama isn't mounting his bully pulpit to initiate a conversation about the rise of renewables and alternative energy sources.

"If politics is the art of the possible, then Obama should seize the moment and see what he can get done," Parenteau told SolveClimate. "If he is going to push for clean energy, now is the time to do it with all the force he can muster."

The $75 million limit approved by Congress in 1990 looks grossly small 20 years later during a spill that could easily lead to billions and billions of dollars in economic claims, Pettit noted.

BP estimates that the ruptured well is spurting 5,000 barrels daily. But some scientists say the slick could be larger by at least five-fold.

"BP has stated that it will pay all legitimate claims and that it will not insist on the $75 million cap," Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said during a Committee on Energy & Natural Resources hearing he chaired Tuesday. "We hope that’s true. But we still have a broken system in need of repair."


Why a Cap Is Even an Issue

Other senators representing costal states have joined N.J. Democrat Robert Menendez in trying to pass legislation that would raise the liability cap under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to $10 billion. His legislation, , is titled the "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act."

In the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, Congress passed the to provide specific legal authority for dealing with the consequences of oil spills. It caps the responsible parties' damages at $75 million. This strict liability cap is the amount an oil company is responsible for without being found at fault for an accident.

The silver lining in this

The silver lining in this environmental disaster is that for once Americans are starting to question our dependence and addiction to oil

The oil spill is changing a lot of minds. In California both Republican candidates for governor have switch from “Drill, Baby, Drill” to putting a stop to further offshore drilling. Even ultra consevative Pozner is feeling the heat as the worst enviormental disaster in US history starts to wash on shore.
The once pro drilling Republican governor Arnold (what’s his last name) now supports and ban on offshore oil drilling
And polls of Americans in general now show that suppport for offshore drilling has plunged by 20 points just in the last 3 weeks.
My guess is that the disasterous effects of this spill are just starting to be felt and even if they plug the leak, the millions of gallons of oil will soon make their way onshore.

As for me, I was a fence sitter. But the scope of this disaster and the fact that it was caused by human error, poor decision making and equipment failure have convinced me that no technology can save us from another disaster like this

The most heart rendering video showed an oil covered seabird trying to peck it’s way into the hull of a small boat. It then disappeared under the water.

Let’s get off the oil bandwagon once and for all. We are just polluting our own environment and killing our own wildlife. There are much safer and cleaner forms of energy that need to be developed.

The age of the combustion engine is coming to a close and we all need to move on into the 21st century

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