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Congress turns to task of preventing another Gulf oil spill

Members of a House committee on Wednesday began shaping a bill that targets the problems laid bare by the Gulf oil spill, from lax regulation to inadequate accident-response plans.

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The law would extend the current 30-day deadline for reviewing exploration plans to 90 days and mandate monthly inspections of all drilling rigs.

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In a nod to improving environmental stewardship of coasts, oceans, and the Great Lakes, the new law also envisions putting 10 percent of offshore drilling revenues into a new Ocean Resources Conservation and Assistance Fund.

Among the other amendments considered Wednesday:

  • Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts argued successfully for an amendment that would close a loophole that has allowed come drillers that won lucrative leasing arrangements in years past to escape having to pay royalties. Under the measure, these drillers would have to either begin paying or be excluded from future leases.
  • An amendment by Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) of Louisiana, who expressed skepticism of President Obama's oil spill commission, won creation of a congressional panel to investigate the causes of the spill.
  • Another amendment would prohibit any oil industry operator with a willfully negligent track record during a seven-year span from being allowed to bid on leases.

Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D) of West Virginia said his committee's legislation is expected to be combined with other measures. Earlier this month, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved legislation to eliminate the current $75 million cap on spill-related damages and expand other liabilities for those responsible for spills. It would raise insurance requirements for drillers from $150 million today to at least $1.5 billion.

Beside giving drilling safety plans a much more thorough review, all oil drilling-related vessels would have to be registered in the United States. (The Deepwater Horizon was registered in the Marshall Islands, ensuring weaker safety inspections.)

That bill also boosts US Coast Guard oversight and addresses cleanup concerns. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, would be required to give dispersants a rigorous testing of toxicity and effectiveness.