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House Democrats drafting oil spill legislation
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the House of Representatives have begun drafting legislation to tighten oil industry practices, especially in deep-water drilling projects like the one that has left millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.
"We're working on it," House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman told Reuters on Tuesday. Asked when the legislation might start moving through the House, Waxman responded, "I don't have a timetable."
The April 20 explosion on a BP-leased oil rig that led to the worst environmental accident in U.S. history triggered a wave of congressional investigations.
Following several high-profile hearings, including testimony from top BP officials, bills to address the problem are beginning to move and others are being drafted.
It's too early to know how their final versions will look or when Congress might complete the work.
Waxman's committee alone has held seven hearings on the oil spill since May 12.
One House Democratic aide said that members of the Energy and Commerce Committee "have heard enough information to at least get started in terms of the regulatory and legislative responses" to the disaster.
Last month, President Barack Obama created an independent commission to probe the oil spill. But with that panel only now getting organized, Democrats in Congress are not waiting for it to wrap up its work sometime next year, when Republicans likely will hold more seats in the Senate and House.
"We want to make sure that where there's a government permit to allow drilling, that all necessary safety measures are reviewed and approved and that the standards are met," Waxman said.
A House Democratic leadership aide added, "It's my understanding" that Waxman is writing legislation addressing the "design, maintenance and testing of drilling equipment."
NEW HEARINGS POSSIBLE
The committee also might hold new hearings, according to House aides, but those sessions have not yet been firmed up.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had set a July 4 deadline for lawmakers to put together ideas on how to deal legislatively with the BP oil spill, which is estimated to be releasing as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day into Gulf waters.
A series of bills could be debated in the House in coming weeks. On Wednesday, the House was poised to pass a bill granting subpoena power to the Obama-appointed commission.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also is having his committee chairmen write legislation that could be folded into a larger energy and environment bill he hopes to put to a vote in July or early August.
That bill likely would encourage the use of more alternative fuels by electric utilities in addition to stepping up regulation of drilling. It also might impose mandatory carbon dioxide emission reductions to fight global warming, but Democrats are split on this.
Other oil spill-related bills moving in the House include:
-- The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved a bill to expand the type of damages that can be claimed in oil spills. Other bills pending in Congress would raise or lift caps on industry liability. The Judiciary committee also voted to authorize issuing subpoenas to BP for documents on its Gulf oil spill claims process;
-- House Democrats will try to pass emergency spending legislation soon that includes around $200 million for oil spill-related activities. The bill also would allow the Interior Department to take more time to review lease requests for oil drilling;
-- House committees are working on bills to improve worker safety in oil spill cleanup efforts and to develop better preparedness standards for offshore energy projects.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)
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