August 3, 2010 / 8:30 PM / 9 years ago

Senate Democrats delay action on oil spill bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Democrats on Tuesday postponed this week’s vote on alternative energy legislation that also would have strengthened offshore drilling safety in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to take the bill off the Senate’s schedule until at least mid-September, when Congress returns from a long summer break, dealt a blow to Democrats’ efforts to hold BP fully responsible for the economic damage from the Gulf oil spill.

“We tried jujitsu, we tried yoga, we tried everything we can with Republicans to come along with us and be reasonable ...we could not get anyone to come along with us,” Reid told reporters.

The White House also blamed political opponents. “The president is disappointed that Republicans have stood in the way of holding BP and other oil companies accountable for the disasters they cause and creating jobs by investing in clean energy technology,” said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt. He added Obama will help push for the legislation this fall.

But Reid’s problem was not just Republican opposition, as some moderate Democrats also voiced opposition to Reid’s bill.

For the second time in a month, Democrats failed to build enough support to advance a major environmental bill. In late July, efforts collapsed in the Senate to mandate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

While Reid said he will try again in September to pass a bill, its fate was uncertain as political partisanship will only grow worse as the November 2 congressional elections near and there are few weeks left to legislate.

“Senator Reid is predictably blaming Republicans for standing in the way of a bill that he threw together in secret and without input from almost any other member of the Senate,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, the senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Last Friday, the House of Representatives narrowly passed an oil spill bill lifting all limits on BP’s liability, although the legislation was amended to also lift Obama’s offshore drilling moratorium if companies meet new safety standards.

The Senate vote, which was planned for Wednesday, was a procedural one to see if there was enough support for a full-blown debate of the Democrats’ energy bill or a Republican alternative.

Democrats and Republicans agreed on some of the alternative energy provisions, such as incentives for more electric vehicles and natural gas-powered trucks.

Nevertheless, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein told reporters, “There was substantial concern on the Democratic side that the energy bill did not do enough.”

She said many Democrats wanted the legislation to include language, which was removed by Reid, that would have required utilities to generate more of their electricity supplies from renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

Environmental groups were disappointed with the delay.

“This bill would fundamentally transform our nation’s approach to oil and gas drilling off our coasts,” said Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group’s offshore energy reform efforts. She also said it would ensure improved technology is used in future drilling projects overseen by tougher environmental review.

The oil and gas industry celebrated the Democratic setback.

“We are pleased that the Senate opted to shelve this bill, which contained several job-killing provisions,” said American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard. “The bill proposed by the Democratic leadership is not an effective or reasoned response to the spill. Instead it will cost American jobs, threaten our fragile economic recovery and jeopardize our energy security.”

Critics of the Democratic bill said it would force oil companies to drill in other countries because it would not lift the drilling moratorium and would make it too expensive for small and medium-size companies to search for oil in U.S. waters.

(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner)

Editing by Alden Bentley and Sofina Mirza-Reid

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