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Reid Pushes for Joint Action on Climate Change and the BP Oil Leak this Summer

June 3, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

A day after President Obama said that he will help whip votes for passing climate change legislation in the Senate this year, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] called on committee chairmen to prepare a strategy for passing a climate bill this summer. And he’s calling for proposals to address the BP oil leak to be rolled into it.

Here’s part of a letter he sent around to Chairmen Baucus, Bingaman, Boxer, Dodd, Leahy, Lieberman, Lincoln and Rockefeller today:

As you know, I hope to bring comprehensive clean energy legislation before the full Senate later this summer. As your Committee works to develop that legislation, I think it is extremely important that you each examine what could be included in a comprehensive energy bill that would address the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The economic, social and environmental devastation occurring there now due to the oil pollution is unprecedented. I believe it is important that your Committee see what can be done to address both the existing situation and to reduce the risks of such a catastrophe happening again.

Among the actions I think we need to explore are ensuring that the oil companies’ are held accountable for their actions and the damages caused by their operations. This may require adjusting current law to more accurately assess and address the damages caused by failures, to ensure the swift and fair compensation of people and communities for their oil pollution related losses, and to update relevant criminal and civil penalty structures. In addition, we must make sure that effective federal safety standards are in place and effectively enforced and that we are better equipped to avert, detect and adequately respond to disastrous failures in the future.

Democrats and Republicans have both been trying to move legislation by unanimous consent to raise the liability cap on oil companies for economic damages resulting from spills and leaks. Current law caps liability at $75 million. The Democratic proposal would raise it to $10 billion, while the Republican plan would remove the cap entirely, but only for this current leak.

Both parties have been blocking each other’s liability cap bills from passing by unanimous consent. Although it would be entirely possible for Reid to hold a full separate debate on the liability issue and other issues relating to the BP leak, the Democrats’ time with a 59-vote majority in the Senate is running out quickly and it is becoming very precious. A week-long debate on the relatively bipartisan issue of raising liability caps could eat up time that the Democrats could be using to pass something that they need their large majority for, like climate change legislation.

Plus, BP is so unpopular right now that rolling the liability issue into the climate bill gives the Democrats a little extra leverage on the climate issue. Attaching the BP-related provisions to the climate bill “necessarily would position opponents of the legislation as voting against the response to the disaster and in support of the oil industry’s demands (in an election year, no less),” Steve Benen at Washington Monthly explains.

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