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GOP fights Democrats on Gulf moratorium, liability

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • GOP slams Obama for imposing a six-month deepwater drilling moratorium
  • Republicans, and some Gulf Coast Democrats, say moratorium hurts economy
  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, wants liability standards to differ by project
  • Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, calls for new laws regulating oil industry

Washington (CNN) -- Partisan bickering over the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster intensified Tuesday as top Republicans once again slammed the Obama administration for imposing a six-month deepwater drilling moratorium and stepped up their fight against a Democratic move to lift current liability caps for oil spills.

Republicans also lashed out at Democrats for allegedly using the disaster to push an alternative energy agenda that the GOP contends will cripple the economic recovery.

The political sniping took place as President Barack Obama headed back to Washington from the Gulf to prepare for a Tuesday night prime time speech on the response to the spill.

The ruptured BP well at the center of the disaster is still believed to be spewing as much as 40,000 barrels -- or between 840,000 and 1.7 milllion gallons -- of crude every day.

Republicans -- along with some Gulf Coast Democrats -- have been particularly upset with the president's decision in May to extend a ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf Coast from 30 days to six months. The ban requires all Gulf wells drilling in more than 500 feet of water to shut down, and prevents new permits from being issued. Wells that are already pumping crude, however, have been allowed to continue operating.

"This moratorium does not makes sense," said Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Louisiana. It is "based on unfounded science. It is not really based on any knowledge of technology or facts on the ground." Boustany complained that the temporary ban will be "hugely detrimental" to the economic recovery.

"When you shut down [deep water] drilling in the Gulf of Mexico ... you're killing jobs," warned Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. Eighty percent of all new oil production in United States occurs offshore, he said, and the majority of that production is in the Gulf.

The rigs affected by the shutdown "will relocate and they won't come back," said Rep. Greg Harper, R-Mississippi. The moratorium is a "job killer" that "will make a horrible disaster ever worse."

Also in the partisan crosshairs: Democrats' targeting of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which limits BP's liability for economic damages incurred by the Gulf disaster to $75 million. Critics note the amount is a small fraction of the cost of a spill like the Gulf disaster. BP has said it will waive the cap on damages and pay "all legitimate claims" as a result of the spill.

Some legislators are seeking to amend the 1920 Death on the High Seas Act, which sharply limits compensation for wrongful deaths on vessels more than three miles from shore.

Democrats have also criticized an 1851 law limiting shipowners' post-accident liability to the value of a sunken vessel. Rig owner Transocean used the law in the days immediately after the April 20 explosion aboard the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon to attempt to limit its liability to $26 million.

Republican opponents of the effort to completely remove the caps contend that doing so could lead to the creation of an energy monopoly while increasing America's dependence on oil imports.

One key Republican, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski -- proposed an alternate plan Tuesday for dealing specifically with the spill. Murkowski said that, in lieu of litigation, she backs the establishment of an expedited claims consideration process under the purview of an independent administrator.

And rather than just "pull a number out of the air," she said, the federal government should set a liability standard for each specific drilling project based on roughly a dozen standards, including the past record of the lease holder, projected well depth and estimated well pressure.

"There are areas [that] we know ... have a higher risk," she argued, and liability standards should reflect that risk.

If liability caps are totally lifted, she argued, energy companies could have problems getting insurance to drill in the Gulf. Such a move, she argued, would be an unwise "emotional reaction" to the disaster.

One strong proponent of greater corporate liability, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-California, argued at a hearing on Tuesday that Congress "needs to review the evidence and pass new laws that put teeth into our regulatory system."

"But we cannot stop there," he said. "Our national energy policy is broken. We're addicted to oil, and this addiction is fouling our beaches, polluting our atmosphere and undermining our national security."