Senator optimistic about compromise on oil spill liability

Sen. Robert Menendez said today he is optimistic he and oil-state colleagues can forge a compromise on raising federal oil spill liability limits.

Menendez, D-N.J., has been in talks with fellow Democrats Mary Landrieu of Lousiana and Mark Begich of Alaska over how to get rid of the current $75 million cap on what oil companies can be forced to pay in natural resource and economic damages.

The 20-year-old liability ceiling, established after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground near Alaska, does not apply to oil spill cleanup and response costs.

After last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, lawmakers widely agreed that the cap was out of date and needed to be hiked — but they have been fighting ever since about where to set the liability limit, or whether to have one at all.

Menendez has been in that latter camp; he sponsored legislation that would completely remove the liability cap on offshore drilling, making companies responsible for an unlimited amount after spills.

Landrieu, Begich and other oil and gas industry allies on Capitol Hill say that proposal would force smaller, independent drillers out of U.S. waters and cede offshore development to only the most well-heeled major oil companies.

Menendez said today there’s a chance for common ground.

I’m of the view optimistically that we can get there, and I think there are incentives and reasons that I think they need to come to that conclusion as well,” Menedez said.”We are working with them to meet our mutual goals — my goal to make sure the taxpayers are not on the hook, that natural resources are made whole, that victims are made whole, and their interest in making sure that can be done without putting what they call independents out of business.

Landrieu last year advanced a plan that would create a $250 million liability limit and a shared-risk insurance pool covering all offshore operators.

Landrieu and Begich are revising that plan now and could unveil it later this month. Meanwhile, staff members for both senators are in talks with Menendez and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., about the developing initiative.

Begich has said he believes there is a chance for consensus built around the shared idea that taxpayers shouldn’t bear the costs of oil spills.

Menendez today seized on new court documents that show a BP official resigned just months before last year’s spill because of disagreements over the company’s commitment to safety.

The offshore drilling foe said the documents prove once again that “there is no such thing as ‘too safe to spill.’ ”

“The best — and perhaps only — way we are going to prevent major oil spills in the future is if oil companies know they will pay for every cent of the damages they create,” Menendez said. “It’s time to stop coddling oil companies.”