Strike Two in the House for Safer Offshore Drilling -- The Senate Up Next?

A few minutes ago, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1229 by a vote of 263-163, with every Republican and 28 Democrats voting to make drilling even less safe and environmentally-responsible than before the BP Gulf Oil Disaster.  Strike two for safer offshore drilling.  The third pitch from Republican leadership will come tomorrow with a vote on H.R. 1231, the most sweeping of a trio of bills  that seeks to weaken oversight of offshore drilling and dramatically expand offshore drilling in pristine ocean areas across every U.S. coast.  

Taken together, these three bills represent a deliberate effort by the Republican-led House to reduce safety and ensure that Big Oil is granted unfettered access to drill wherever they want.    

The first bill, H.R. 1230, which passed the House last week, would allow offshore drilling off the Virginia Coast, and would limit environmental reviews for new leases in the Gulf of Mexico.  

The bill passed today—H.R. 1229—would impose an arbitrary deadline to review drilling permits, and require automatic approval of permits if no action is taken within 60 days. The bill would also make it more difficult to challenge decisions that violate the law by eliminating attorney’s fees for successful lawsuits, mandating that all offshore drilling-related cases be heard by the 5th circuit court (ie., Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana), and posing new burdens on plaintiffs.  Reps. Polis (D-CO), Garamendi (D-CA), and Markey (D-MA), among others, attempted to improve the bills by offering amendments to protect the environment and worker’s safety. But each and every of the eleven amendments offered to make drilling more responsible failed (see here, here and here).  

While the first two bills are bad enough, tomorrow’s vote on H.R. 1231 (which is being debated right now) could be the biggest blow to our coastal environments and economies.  By mandating national oil production levels and tying new drilling to those production targets, H.R. 1231 would grant essentially unlimited access to oil companies to drill, baby, drill.  From the pristine Arctic Ocean, to California’s sparkling beaches, to the entire eastern seaboard, leasing for offshore drilling would commence in 2012, and would continue in perpetuity, as the bill requires 50% of unleased acreage in our oceans to be available for leasing every five years.  Presumably, the bill would culminate in every single acre of our oceans being available for drilling, should the oil companies wish to drill.  And, with the passage of H.R. 1229 and 1230, all of this new drilling would come with less oversight and less access to fair hearings against decisions that violate the law. 

These votes come only one year after the nation’s most horrific oil spill, which killed eleven workers and spewed approximately 170 million gallons of oil into one of the nation’s most productive fishing grounds, where rising numbers of sick fish are now alarming scientists.

 Senate Next?

The battle will now quickly move to the Senate. As I wrote earlier, there is going to be a bill to cut the tax handouts to big oil that have recently reported record profits.  The Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has indicated he will offer an amendment to the tax bill that will track the Hastings bill, netting more profits for the oil companies, less environmental protection, but no relief at the pump.

 The House was only the first inning.