05.11.10

Whitehouse Introduces Trio of Bills to Address Gulf Oil Spill

Washington, D.C. - With oil continuing to leak into the Gulf of Mexico from a broken off-shore oil rig at a rate of 5,000 barrels per day, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse today introduced a series of bills to address this growing catastrophe. The bills would establish a commission to investigate the oil spill, lift limits on punitive damages against big oil companies, and raise the civil and criminal penalties associated with violating provisions of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA).

"We can no longer tolerate periodic accidents which devastate marine ecosystems," said Whitehouse, who, as Rhode Island's U.S. Attorney in 1997, secured more than $9 million in criminal penalties following the North Cape oil spill. "By examining the cause of this particular spill, and making it clear that oil companies will be held accountable for these sad events, I hope these bills will help prevent future accidents."

The first of these bills, the BP Deepwater Horizon Inquiry Commission Act of 2010, cosponsored by U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would establish an independent, non-partisan commission to investigate the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and provide recommendations to avoid such disasters in the future. The Commission would also investigate BP and other private companies involved with the spill, as well as the performance of federal and state agencies responsible for oversight of offshore drilling. Finally, the Commission would assess the consequences of the spill to sensitive and ecologically important areas, as well as the economic impacts to coastal communities. Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) introduced the companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

The Big Oil Polluter Pays Act, which is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would overturn the 2008 Supreme Court case, Exxon Shipping Co. vs. Baker, which slashed Exxon Mobil Corporation's punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez Spill. In that case, the Supreme Court held that unless Congress spoke, punitive damages under maritime law had to be limited to the amount of compensatory damages assessed in a case (the damages assessed to make victims whole). This legislation would allow judges and juries to assess punitive damages based on all facts in a case, without regard to the amount of other damages owed.

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) Amendments Act, cosponsored by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), would raise the civil and criminal penalties associated with violating provisions of the OCSLA, as well as MMS/Coast Guard safety and environmental regulations promulgated under the Act. OCSLA provides the framework for oil and gas exploration and development on the outer continental shelf. Currently, the civil penalties in the statute are capped at $20,000 per day. This bill would raise the daily civil penalty maximum to $75,000 ($150,000/day if threat of serious or irreparable harm to life or the environment). The criminal penalties in the statute are capped at $100,000 and imprisonment of not more than 10 years. The bill would raise the criminal penalty maximum to $10,000,000.

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