The Senate GOP’s Plan to Shield Big Oil From Suits

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I’m having a hard time getting hyped up about the various and sundry oil-related bills swirling around the Hill. There’s the Democrats’ plan to end oil subsidies, which failed in the Senate yesterday, and the Republican plan to drill everywhere and anywhere, which goes to a vote later today.

It’s the same old story line: Dems want to cut subsidies, Republicans accuse them of trying to increase gas prices, and then Republicans in turn offer a bill centered on the false premise that domestic drilling is going to do anything to change oil prices. But one particular provision in the GOP’s “Offshore Production and Safety Act of 2011” is just outrageous enough to get my goat. In addition to expanding offshore drilling, the bill would potentially give BP and other oil companies an unfair advantage in all lawsuits related to the Gulf of Mexico.

The measure would deem the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, located in New Orleans, the “exclusive venue” for all civil suits dealing with energy projects in the Gulf. That’s a problem because the court is stocked with judges who have financial holdings or other ties to the oil and gas industry. That means lawsuits would be relegated to a particularly sympathetic court, no matter what jurisdiction the company is based in or where the incident that prompted the suit occurred.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) issued a statement Wednesday on why this particular provision is problematic:

Damage claims from environmental disasters should be heard in the states affected. This provision would hurt the rights of those in Florida, Alabama, and elsewhere, and set a dangerous precedent. States’ rights were once a bipartisan concern. Senate Republicans now seem to be turning their back on states’ rights to let Big Oil stack the deck in a federal court.

The majority of active judges serving on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals have a financial interest in energy corporations that would likely require their recusal in a lawsuit filed under this proposed legislation. I will not support this ill-conceived attempt to stack the deck against victims of environmental disasters, while also undercutting our current regulations, ignoring safety and environmental protections, and setting arbitrary timelines for drilling permits.

The GOP’s bill is expected to fail when it goes to a vote this afternoon—good reason, perhaps, to be grateful for the Senate’s inability to pass anything.

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