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.”
This article appears in the May 25, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.