Congress Takes Aim at BP


Updated at 12:45 p.m. ET

"Our job basically is to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday.

That's exactly what lawmakers in Washington intend to do in the coming weeks.

Multiple committees in the House and the Senate are scheduling hearings to grill executives from BP and other companies that may be responsible for the oil rig explosion that caused a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Administration officials are already investigating the cause of the explosion, but lawmakers are asking for further investigations. They're also calling for new laws to hold oil companies more responsible for future spills.

Three committees in the House of Representatives have already scheduled hearings to discuss the disaster, Politico reports. The questioning begins today, when Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) will host a members-only briefing in a House subcommittee with officials from Transocean, which owned the rig that exploded, and BP, which was leasing the rig.

Next week, BP America President Lamar McKay and the head of Transocean, Steven Newman, are expected to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The congressional group is also asking Halliburton CEO David Lesar to testify; his company has been accused of improperly cementing the underwater oil well and the well cap. The House Natural Resources Committee also scheduled a hearing for later in the month.

Hearings are also being scheduled in the Senate, where three lawmakers have already introduced legislation aimed at making oil companies responsible for a larger share of the check in the event of such a disaster.

Currently, there is a $75 million cap on an oil company's liability for economic damages, or other damages claimed by individuals or government, under the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund law. Democratic Senators Robert Menendez (N.J.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) yesterday unveiled a bill to raise that cap from $75 million to $10 billion. They're calling it the "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act"

Nelson is also calling on the Interior Department's inspector general to investigate whether oil and gas industry have exerted too much influence over regulators. He is questioning why the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS), which oversees offshore drilling, allowed oil companies to run rigs without specific back-up systems that would have capped the well in the event of a spill. Nelson, a longtime critic offshore drilling, pointed out in a press release that he helped shine a spotlight on allegations that government employees who responsible for handling billions of dollars in oil royalties were engaged in illicit sex with employees of energy companies.

Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), the top Republican in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter yesterday to Salazar regarding his committee's investigation into the accident and the role of the MSS.

"The malfunctioning 'failsafe' device raises serious questions about any safety inspections or audits conducted by MMS or third parties during the certification process," he wrote.

Meanwhile, the Center for Responsive Politics is highlighting BP's ongoing lobbying efforts, which came to a total of $16 million in 2009 and $3.53 million in just the first quarter of 2010. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of the Democrats who has come out in defense of offshore drilling in the wake of the disastrous oil spill, was the top congressional recipient of BP-related campaign cash in the last election cyle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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