More than a year ago, an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and sent nearly 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.
Since then, Congress has been mulling legislation to increase offshore drilling safety. The Presidential Spill Commission investigated the disaster, issuing a raft of recommendations. And scores of hearing rooms have seen government and industry officials face the witness stand, but Congress has still not passed one bill. And National Journal’s Energy and Environment Insiders don’t think they will.
Though earlier this month, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., brought up two bills aimed at boosting drilling safety, an overwhelming majority of Insiders say that Congress is either somewhat or very unlikely to enact any legislation to increase offshore drilling regulations or raise financial liability limits for oil companies.
Forty-four percent of Insiders said it was very unlikely such legislation would clear Congress, while 39 percent said it was somewhat unlikely, citing a partisan divide between increasing regulations and increasing drilling.
The only way that such a bill could go anywhere, Insiders said, is if it is coupled with a larger measure.
“[It] won’t happen without pairing it with greater access or expedited permitting and I don’t see the public outrage like 2008 that forces such actions,” one Insider said, while others said it would have to be a part of a larger energy bill or budget measure.
High energy prices, however, have spurred lawmakers into a series of votes aimed at easing constituent fears.
In the last month, the House has passed three bills aimed at speeding the permitting process for offshore drilling as well as expanding drilling to new areas, but similar legislation was shot down in the Senate last week.
Insiders argued that Congress is too polarized and too budget-focused to pass anything meaningful on drilling reform.
“Both the House and the Senate have now had their pre-Memorial Day message votes on energy—how much time will either body want to spend on energy legislation while other messaging topics [e.g., the debt limit] are out there?” one Insider asked.
“Anything beyond must-do’s like appropriations or a CR and raising the debt ceiling is unlikely in this Congress,” another Insider echoed.
Bingaman’s two bills are slated for committee markup on Thursday, but even if successful, they would still face an uphill battle through the full Senate and a Republican majority in the House. Though similar drilling-safety legislation unanimously cleared Bingaman’s panel just after the spill last year, it stalled in the full Senate last summer.
“Whether Congress will actually move on an energy bill of any sort largely depends on whether gasoline prices are seen as too high for too long so that Congress feels like it must ‘do something,’ and whether each party can be perceived as ‘doing something’ by taking positions or voting on legislation that has no chance of becoming law, or whether it is actually necessary to enact law to be seen as acting,” one Insider argued.
Members on both sides of the aisle, and in both chambers, have spoken out about everything from expanded offshore drilling and clean-energy investment to cutting oil and gas subsidies and cracking down on speculation, but have continued to dance around opposing legislation while energy prices fluctuate.
“Both parties seem to have calculated that the perception of doing something is unrelated to enactment of legislation, which explains the studious determination for Senate Democrats and House Republicans to do very different things on energy in recent weeks,” the same Insider said.
But as Memorial Day weekend approaches, messaging over gas prices is looking to be at its end. The national gas price average for regular gasoline is down 11 cents from nine days ago, at $3.85 per gallon for self-serve unleaded regular, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Still, more than half of National Journal’s Energy and Environment Insiders think prices will surpass 2008’s record of $4.11 a gallon.
Fifty-four percent of Insiders said prices would set a record high this year, with one Insider arguing that we will see $4.50 this summer while another assured the gas price storm is still on its way.
But despite the consensus, some Insiders argued that such things are impossible to predict, due to the global marketplace, and some said that we’ve hit the high-water mark.
“But they will spike again, because something will happen in the Mideast or the Gulf of Mexico," one Insider said, adding that “until we move away from our dependence on oil, we will remain hostage to these spikes.”
A year after the Gulf oil spill, Congress has not passed a single bill to improve offshore drilling safety. What is the likelihood that this Congress will enact legislation to increase offshore drilling regulations or financial liability limits for oil companies?
- Very Likely 0%
- Somewhat Likely 15%
- Somewhat Unlikely 39%
- Very Unlikely 43%
- Volunteered 2%
"But unlikely that it will do much to actually improve safety."
“House Republicans have acquired oil spill amnesia and jumped right back into the 2008 'Drill, Baby, Drill' routine. They show no interest in actually implementing any of the recommendations of the BP Spill Commission.”
“The key on whether a big energy bill moves is whether gasoline prices are seen as too high for too long so that Congress feels like it must 'do something,' and whether each party can be perceived as 'doing something' by taking positions or voting on legislation that has no chance of becoming law, or whether it is actually necessary to enact law to be seen as acting; both parties seem to have calculated that the perception of doing something is unrelated to enactment of legislation, which explains the studious determination for Senate Democrats and House Republicans to do very different things on energy in recent weeks, a Kabuki dance intended to avoid agreement and new law.”
“As long as Congress continues to link offshore drilling safety matters with tax increases and environmental riders, a bipartisan agreement seems unlikely.”
“Both on drilling safety and financial liability. I suppose some of this could be addressed in a budget bill of some sort, but not likely that it will done in separate legislation.”
“The Senate has been on the same bill since March, the only items that pass are the must move provisions and even then it’s going to require the POTUS to push Reid to accomplish.”
“It is a sad statement that a year after most Americans were highly focused on the need to protect the Gulf, attention has turned, instead, to enhancing drilling activity in order to (purportedly) impact world oil prices. The new House leadership has no interest in enhancing regulations.”
“This will happen only if it is coupled with a meaningful deal to allow more access to offshore resources and a predictable permitting process, and I think the politics are just too hard.”
“Zero to none. With Interior slowly moving forward, the only thing that would pass in some sort of deal would codify the new admin. regs. [already in place] and speeding up the permit timeline.”
Will gasoline prices reach new record highs this year, surpassing the 2008 record of $4.11 for a gallon of regular?
- Yes 54%
- No 46%
"Is $5 the new $4? The public may be screaming, but they’re still driving."
"Yes, probably. But who knows? It’s a global marketplace and the issues that affect prices are nearly impossible to predict. That’s why it’s such a volatile commodity and why we should be working to wean ourselves off it."
"I believe gasoline will surpass the record this summer, and that we will see $4.50 gasoline this summer. At that point I believe the oil companies will be forced to moderate pricing or risk having their profits attacked by legislators"
"The answer depends on what the future holds for the global market price of oil, foreign policy developments, and guessing the weather (read: hurricanes in the Gulf or earthquakes on the West Coast). If I could predict any of these, I would be engaged in a frenzy of speculation trading from a beach located in a country without U.S. extradition instead of answering this question."
"I’m not convinced that the economy has come back enough to allow gasoline prices to go that high; every time it gets close to that point it retreats."
"Of course there is great uncertainty in any prediction about oil prices, so the 'no' response is not a confident one, especially given that we are already so close to that record."
"The answer really depends on the political stability of the Middle East and North Africa. At the moment, it does not look like further destabilizing events will occur. But if Saudi Arabia is hit with substantial unrest, then all bets are off on the price of oil."
National Journal’s Energy and Environment Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of energy policy experts. They include:
Jeff Anderson, Paul Bailey, Kenneth Berlin, Denise Bode, Kevin Book, David Brown, Neil Brown, Stephen Brown, Kateri Callahan, McKie Campbell, Guy Caruso, Paul Cicio, Douglas Clapp, Eileen Claussen, Steve Cochran, Phyllis Cuttino, Kyle Danish, Lee Dehihns, Robbie Diamond, Bob Dinneen, Sean Donahue, Jeff Duncan, John Felmy, Mike Ference, David Foster, Josh Freed, Don Furman, Paul Gilman, Richard Glick, Kate Gordon, Chuck Gray, Jason Grumet, Christopher Guith, Lewis Hay, Jeff Holmstead, David Holt, Skip Horvath, Bob Irvin, Bill Johnson, Gene Karpinski, Joseph T. Kelliher, Brian Kennedy, Kevin Knobloch, David Kreutzer, Fred Krupp, Tom Kuhn, Mindy Lubber, Frank Maisano, Drew Maloney, Roger Martella, John McArther, Mike McKenna, Bill McKibben, David Miller, Kristina Moore, Richard Myers, Aric Newhouse, Frank O'Donnell, Mike Olson, T. Boone Pickens, Thomas Pyle, Hal Quinn, Rhone Resch, Barry Russell, Joseph Schultz, Bob Simon, Scott Sklar, Bill Snape, Jeff Sterba, Christine Tezak, Susan Tierney, Andrew Wheeler, Brian Wolff, and Todd Young.
This article appears in the May 25, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.