Senator Reid asks for ideas to address oil spill

U.S. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) listens to remarks after the Senate approved a package of changes to President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare overhaul and sent the bill to the House of Representatives for final passage in Washington, March 25, 2010. REUTERS/Jim Young

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday asked key committee leaders to address the Gulf oil spill by submitting their ideas for a comprehensive energy bill before the Fourth of July.

Reid urged the heads of various Senate panels to explore what actions lawmakers can take to make sure oil companies are held accountable for accidents and to lessen the nation’s dependence on oil.

“Clearly we cannot now afford to halt the domestic oil production that can be done safely and responsibly, but we can demand that companies operating in deepwater invest in the development and deployment of emergency response technologies and safety procedures that are sufficient to handle worst case scenarios,” Reid said in a letter.

The committees contacted include Energy and Natural Resources, Environment and Public Works and Finance.

Reid said the United States needs to move more quickly to “kick the oil habit” through production of alternative fuels and advanced vehicles, but was unclear about whether the energy bill would set a price on carbon.

The legislation most likely to advance quickly in Congress is a bill to lift the liability cap on oil companies paying economic costs related to oil spills, including damages to commercial fishing, tourism and other industries.

Currently the cap is set at $75 million per company per incident. Democrats in the Senate, including Reid, have called for eliminating any cap.

Other ideas in reaction to the oil spill include the possible establishment of an independent watchdog agency to oversee offshore drilling projects. Interior’s Minerals Management Service, which currently holds that role, has been accused of being too close to the industry it is supposed to regulate.

Besides the letter, Reid is set to meet next week with the committee heads to discuss energy and environment legislation this year. A meeting of the full Democratic caucus on the same topic is expected the following week.