May 18, 2010 / 6:21 PM / 9 years ago

U.S. says offshore drilling key despite oil spill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Secretary said on Tuesday offshore drilling was vital to meet the country’s energy needs just as lawmakers pushed forward with efforts to make big oil companies fully liable for oil spills.

In Capitol Hill hearings four weeks after a drilling rig exploded and caused a massive oil spill deep in the Gulf of Mexico, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said offshore drilling was still a necessary part of U.S. energy policy.

Salazar said about 30 percent of U.S. oil production comes from the Gulf of Mexico, where the rig leased by energy giant BP Plc exploded on April 20, killing 11 people and spewing vast amounts of crude into the ocean.

Election-year politics were evident in Congress on Tuesday when Democrats for the second time in a week tried to force a Senate vote on a bill to increase oil companies’ liability for accidents. The move, as expected, was blocked by Republicans.

“Republicans side with big oil companies,” said one Senate Democrat’s press release shortly after the failed maneuver.

Senator Robert Menendez, one of the Democrats seeking approval for the bill that would increase the liability cap per company per incident to $10 billion from $75 million, said Democratic senators were considering pushing legislation that would place no limits on the liability.

“We will be discussing whether to go to unlimited liability,” Menendez told reporters.

Republican Senator James Inhofe stopped Menendez’s bill from coming to the Senate floor on Tuesday, citing one of the same reasons used when it was stopped last week — that a new cap could hurt smaller drillers.

Salazar said the Obama administration agreed that the liability cap needed to be lifted though he would not give a specific number for how high it should be.

As part of a push to uncover more details of the impact of the explosion, another Democratic senator said BP had agreed to provide video records related to the Gulf of Mexico spill.

“These films are critical to understanding the volume of the spill, the reach of the spill, and the results of the efforts so far to contain it,” said Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.

BP had been criticized for not being forthcoming with providing more video footage or photographs of the damage, sparking questions over whether the spill was actually much bigger than the 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 liters) per day the company says is leaking into the ocean every day.

Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe, Richard Cowan and Tom Doggett; writing by Deborah Charles; Editing by Doina Chiacu

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