June 25 (Tom Ichniowski file--UPDATED from 6/24)

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) has scheduled a June 30 committee vote on oil-spill-related legislation.

Committee spokesman Bill Wicker says that the "principal  vehicle" slated to come before the panel is a measure that Bingaman introduced June 21. It aims to toughen offshore-oil safety mandates, increase civil and criminal penalties and set stricter requirements for investigating accidents.

It is co-sponsored by the energy committee's top Republican, Lisa Murkowski  of Alaska, and that bipartisan support should give the bill a smooth path when the panel holds its "markup" session.

Bingaman's bill also would mandate a restructuring of the Interior Dept.'s offices that deal with offshore oil drilling, regulation, and royalties--something the department has done administratively. 

Wicker said that the committee hopes to add "elements" of three other bills to the Bingaman-Murkowski legislation. Those other bills have been introduced by Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)  and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), respectively.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, testifying at a June 24 energy committee hearing, called Bingaman's measure "a great step forward" and "a very good bill." But he said he also wanted to have Michael Bromwich, newly appointed head of Interior's revamped offshore-oil regulation and management agency, to have a chance to  provide input on the proposed legislation.

Salazar was accompanied at the hearing by Bromwich,  a former U..S. Attorney and Justice Dept. Inspector General, who just joined Interior as director of its newly constituted Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

The bureau is the result of Salazar's splitting up of what had been the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which was responsible for regulating and also collecting royalty payments from, the oil industry. MMS had been criticized for being too close to the industry. "MMS is no more," said Salazar.

Bromwich said he had only been in his new job for four days, and is still learning about the agency he is running. But he added that he already has established a new investigations and review unit, which would act as "a SWAT team" to probe any allegations that may be raised  about possible problems within the agency and in the industry.

Salazar also said he has increased Interior's oil-rig inspection and enforcement staff by about 10% over the past two years, to 62. But that number is "woefully inadequate," he said, noting that those staffers have to cover almost 4,000 energy-production facilities in the Gulf.

Salazar added that the department needs to add about 330 full-time workers for offshore-oil inspection, enforcement and environmental compliance.

June 23 (Pam Hunter file)

Federal officials have asked the state of Louisiana to shut down dredging East of the Mississippi River, delaying progress on the effort to build berms to protect the fragile coastline from the effects of the widening oil spill.

 U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have asked that the dredging operations be moved to a site further from the Chandeleur barrier islands, the nesting ground to the brown pelican and other wildlife harmed by the spill.

 Dept. of Interior Secretary Tom Strickland says that the state was pumping sand from an ecologically sensitive area of the island chain, rather than a less-sensitive area originally called for and agreed to.  The Associated Press reports that the state had requested a one-week extension to move the pipeline to the more desired area, but failed to meet the deadline.

 Sen. Mary Landrieu issued a statement on July 23, saying that although she supported the dredging effort, “we have to get it right and not inflict more damage on the wetlands and wildlife.” She urged federal and state officials to work together to resolve the issue so that a new pipeline could be built and dredging resume.


June 17: (Tom Ichniowski file) The congressional picture on oil-spill or broader energy legislation didn't become much clearer today. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) convened a meeting of his fellow Democrats in the Capitol and reached no consensus on how to proceed on energy legislation.

Reid said after the meeting that there was "a full, frank discussion." But he told reporters, "We are not going today to tell you what we're going to have in this legislation, because that's a work in progress."

Participants heard presentations from senators about three pending bills, said Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), whose panel approved a wide-ranging energy measure in 2009. 

But he said there was no consensus reached during the meeting because there was no chance for senators other than those presenting the bills to speak.

Another participant, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), said that Reid "is going to do everything that he can as our Leader to bring energy legislation to the floor in July...."

A follow-up meeting of Senate Democrats on energy legislation is expected, perhaps during the week of June 20.

About an hour after the Senate energy meeting ended, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in her weekly press conference that Democrats in that chamber are working on a list of about a half-dozen oil-spill-related bills.

They include measures to reorganize the Interior Dept.'s Minerals Management Service and amend the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which has a $75-million liability cap on spills where there was no  liability cap for oil spills.

Pelosi said that committee chairmen, whose panels have had many oil-spill hearings  in recent weeks, are to provide her information they've gathered by July. After that, she said, some oi-spill bills may move "free-standing," and "some may go together, some may go as amendments to other bills."

She added that she hoped that a measure to provide assistance to families of workers killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion could be passed "as  soon as possible, and  with enough bipartisan support to be approved without a roll-call vote.

Today's developments come two days after President Obama's June 15 address to the nation on the Gulf spill, in which he said,  "The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now." 

In his remarks--his first Oval Office address--Obama did not lay out legislative details or set a deadline for producing an oil spill or energy bill. 

He praised the climate-change measure that the House passed last year as "strong and comprehensive," but said he was "happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party--as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels."

That leaves lawmakers plenty of room to negotiate.

June 14: (Pam Hunter file) Administration officials said on Sunday that President Obama plans to ask BP officials Wednesday to set up a special escrow account to handle claims filed by businesses and individuals harmed by the oil spill. President Obama is expected to outline his plan to legally force BP to cover claims in his first Oval Office speech Tuesday evening. He will meet with top BP officials Wednesday at the White House.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders sent a letter to BP Sunday, asking the firm to set up a $20-billion fund to cover damages and cleanup costs, the Washington Post reports.  

June 11: (Tom Ichniowski file) Oil-spill-related bills, introduced or in the idea stage,  are flying around Capitol Hill as lawmakers react to the disaster.

Some proposals could affect the construction industry to a degree, but what would have a bigger impact on the industry is if one of the focused oil-spill bills becomes the engine to pull a wide-ranging energy package....for example, one that has incentives to build new nuclear power plants or wind farms.

In the House, so far at least, it doesn't look like Democrats are taking the big-package approach. Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters June 11 that committee chairmen are working on several oil-spill-related measures and said the likely plan is to take up each measure in turn.

Pelosi said, "No decision has been made" about whether to bundle the bills together. She added, "Most likely, we would probably take them as they are ready"

Among the bills she cited are measures to:

--Revise the 1990 Oil Spill Liability Act to raise the $75-million liability cap for spills where no negligence is found on the part of the oil company.

--Revamp Interior Dept. offshore oil leasing programs. (Introduced in September 2009 by Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall).

--Amend the Death on the High Seas act's liability limits, to assist families of those who died in the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. (Introduced June 10 by Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr.--Pelosi called that bill "urgent.")

The Speaker did say the U.S. should reduce its dependence on oil and look at renewable sources such as wind and solar. But those broader topics didn't seem to be on her legislative short list.

Climate-change legislation could conceivably be part of a comprehensive energy bill, but Pelosi made no mention of it in her press conference.

June 7: (Tom Ichniowski file) In the wake of the Gulf oil spill, Senate Democrats are giving a new push to a wide-ranging energy bill. Before the spill, legislative handicappers were giving long odds on the Senate's passing an energy measure this year.  

In a floor statement June 7, the Senate's first day back in session after the Memorial Day break, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that although the chamber may not get the bill done before the July 4 recess, "the Senate must take definitive action to hold companies like BP accountable for disasters like the one that’s poisoning our  waters and shores more and more every day."

Four days earlier, Reid notified the chairs of several Senate committees that he wants them to send him recommendations by the July 4 recess for provisions to be contained in his envisioned energy measure.

Reid made clear that would like to see the bill require more accountability by oil companies for damages caused by their operations, put more emphasis on renewable energy and tighten emergency-response and safety requirements for drilling in deep water.

He said, however, that the U.S. cannot afford to stop domestic oll production that is done "safely and responsibly."

As Reid and the committee chairs assemble the new energy bill  it's unclear whether they will include provisions from a climate-change measure introduced in May by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).

June 3 (Pam Hunter file) The Obama administration has sent a preliminary $69.09 million bill to BP and "other responsible parties" for response and recovery operations related to the oil spill.

In a statement, the White House says, "As a responsible party, BP is financially responsible for all costs associated with the response to the spill, including efforts to stop the leak at its source, reduce the spread of oil, protect the shoreline and mitigate damages, as well as long-term recovery efforts to ensure that all individuals and communities impacted by the spill are made whole." 

The White House adds that it will send periodic bills to BP and other responsible parties to ensure that the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund is reimbursed on an ongoing basis.

In congressional testimony, BP has said that it will pay all "legitimate" expenses associated with the spill.

June 3 (Tom Ichniowski file) Adm. Thad Allen, the federal incident commander for the Gulf oil spill, has directed BP to pay for additional sand berms to protect the Louisiana coast. Allen said June 2 that BP is to fund five barrier-island projects besides the one he had approved earlier. 

BP issued a statement saying it will follow Allen's directive and estimated that the six projects will cost it $360 million.

Allen said, "Based on a thorough expert analysis, we believe that these six total projects, which will be constructed expeditiously in the areas most at risk for long-term impact by oil, will effectively stem potential damage to these fragile shorelines."

He said he had notified Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) in the afternoon of June 2 of his decision

BP added that it "will not manage or contract directly for the construction of the island sections, nor will the company assume any liability for unintended consequences of the project. The company plans to make payments in stages based on the project's milestones."

Jindal said that the Army Corps of Engineers last week had approved the six segments in the state's 24-segment, dredging and sand-boom plan.  He wants the Coast Guard to approve the remaining projects, too.

"Our entire coast is important," Jindal said.  "Estimates show that about 100 miles of barrier islands will help protect about 4,000 miles of our shoreline."

May 28 (Pam Hunter file) The Dept. of Interior announced today that Bureau of Land management Director Bob Abbey will serve as the acting director of the Minerals Management Service (MMS). Abbey has led the BLM since August 2009.

Just returning from the Incident Command Center in Louisiana where he has been helping to lead the Dept. of Interior's response to the oil spill, he will oversee the splitting of MMS into three separate agencies. He will continue on as BLM director, but deputy director Mike Poole will handle Abbey's day-to-day management duties at BLM while Abbey is at MMS.

"Bob Abbey's recent leadership on onshore energy reforms is exactly the kind of experience we need as we continue to reform and begin to restructure MMS," says Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar

May 28  (Andrew Wright file) The government's point person on the Gulf oil spill cleanup, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, said Friday morning that the "top kill" plan may be working, the New York Times reported. The next 12 to 18 hours will be critical, Allen said on ABC's Good Morning America.

Detailed Wall St. Journal investigative report says BP, over budget and behind schedule on Deepwater Horizon project in April, "cut short a procedure involving drilling fluid that is designed to detect gas in the well..."and "also skipped a quality test of the cement around the pipe..." before an explosion sank the rig, killing 11 workers and triggering the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

BP's chief operating officer said Thursday afternoon that it could be  24 hours before the "top kill" attempt to stop the leaks by pumping mud was successful, according to a  New Orleans Times-Picayune report.  

BBC file provides clear explanation of "top kill' method with sharp slide show graphics.

May 27  (Pam Hunter file) While efforts to stem the disastrous oil spill continue out in the Gulf, the Obama administration continues to make policy decisions that have far-reaching ramifications for the oil sector.

President Obama on May 27 announced that the U.S. would halt exploration for oil at two locations off the Coast of Alaska and cancel the pending lease sale for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and a proposed lease sale for drilling off the coast of Virginia.

The president also called for the moratorium on offshore drilling to be extended for at least six months, until the results of the various investigations are complete.

Additionally, the U.S. will suspend action on 33 deepwater exploratory wells currently being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico.

President Obama said these decisions were based on recommendations from a report from based a 30-day investigation that was launched shortly after the accident occurred. The report also recommended that the administration implement more aggressive new operating standards and requirements for offshore energy companies, “which we will put in place,” Obama said.

Earlier that morning, the Minerals and Management Service’s top official, Elizabeth Birnbaum, announced that she would resign from her post. The MMS has come under fire in the wake of the Gulf coast disaster. Critics, who include President Obama, contend that MMS has long had too “cozy” a relationship with the oil industry.

Obama said,  “We have to make sure that if we are going to go forward with drilling, that we have people who are operating at the highest level,” he said.

But Nick Rahall, chair of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, noted upon hearing the news of Birnbaum’s resignation that that although “on the surface a good start, it’s fair to say that her departure does not address the root problem…the most serious allegations that we’ve recently learned about occurred prior to her tenure.”

It’s likely we have not seen the last of changes both personnel and administrative, at the troubled agency.