It says something when BP does more than the U.S. Senate to protect the Gulf of Mexico. The company's decision to set aside $20 billion to cover economic losses caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster shows just how ridiculously low the current $75 million cap is for spill damages. Yet that cap remains intact because the Senate has failed to adopt a House measure that would force oil companies to pay for the full costs of the damages they cause. The Senate needs to pass the bill along with another by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, that would funnel any penalties that BP pays into a restoration fund for the gulf states.
Oil companies already are on the hook for paying the entire cost of any cleanup effort. But federal law caps at $75 million the amount that offshore drilling operations must pay in economic damages to people or businesses whose incomes or property are hurt by a spill. That figure comes nowhere close to compensating victims of even a minor accident. BP's $20 billion compensation fund, which just cranked up, has already doled out $2.5 billion. And that has covered only short-term, emergency claims. So why is the Senate stalling when there are thousands of oil production operations right now in the gulf?
The House measure approved in July removes the cap, imposes new environmental safely rules and establishes a framework for bringing together the five gulf states to craft a restoration plan. Castor's legislation would build on these gains by requiring the government to spend at least 80 percent of any fines collected from BP on restoring the gulf economy and ecosystem. It only makes sense to dedicate fines from this spill to areas that bore the damage. Given government estimates that BP spilled 206 million gallons, the penalties could range from $5 billion to $21 billion. That would make a good start in rebuilding the gulf and in researching ways to prevent a similar catastrophe in the future.
Some Republican and oil-state senators oppose removing the cap, claiming that open liability will put smaller offshore drillers out of business. That argument is a red herring that misses the point. Oil companies that cannot afford to pay for the accidents they cause should not operate in public waters. Look what it took for the government to get a cash-rich company like BP to bring serious resources to the table. And that argument certainly does not justify keeping the cap at $75 million — or the Senate's refusal to act. When Congress convenes in January, it needs to make the punishment for any spill work for the victims, not for the people who caused it, and it needs to do so before another spill threatens the nation again.