On Thursday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) blocked a bill that would have raised oil companies' "responsibility cap" -- the maximum amount in damages companies must pay for their accidents -- from $75 million to $10 billion.
On Friday, Murkowski's office was rebutting critics who were asking whether her opposition to the measure had anything to do with the fact she is a major supporter of offshore drilling who has received $426,989
in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry over her eight-year Senate career. Murkowski is the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"You can't be sure what her motivation is -- it could be a lot of things. But the fact that she receives so much money from oil and gas does make people wonder," said Adam Smith, a spokesman for the Public Campaign, a campaign watchdog group. "I think that's the problem with the current system is that members have to spend their days regulating these industries, and then at night take money from them at fundraisers."
Smith said he estimated that members of Congress on the committees dealing with the oil spill had received a combined $12 million from the oil industry.
Robert Dillon, Murkowski's spokesman on the energy committee, said Friday he did not believe Murkowski's campaign money was relevant to her vote against the measure. Dillon said the senator supports raising the liability cap, but wants to give Congress time to come up with a reasonable amount, as the $10 billion figure is arbitrary and "probably too high."
He also said the senator supports raising taxes on each barrel of oil to increase the size of a federal spill response fund, and would not set any limits on the punitive damages BP might have to pay for the Gulf of Mexico spill.
Earlier this month, a group of Democrats proposed the "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Liability Act
" to change a 1990 law that set oil companies' liability cap at $75 million. In a vote Thursday, Murkowski halted the bill from progressing further.
Murkowski argued the bill would hurt smaller, independent U.S. operators and inadvertently help global operators. She said smaller companies could not afford the increased liability costs associated with offshore drilling and would be forced from the market. Small operators now provide one-third of domestic oil production and two-thirds of domestic natural gas.
Murkowski also spoke
at length about the Exxon-Valdez oil spill that devastated Alaska's coast in the late 1980s, assuring her Democratic colleagues that she understood the "economic and social impact" of oil spills. She said she believed the cap should be examined and possibly increased, but that "picking a number" could have "unintended consequences." It could "give all of America's offshore resources to the biggest of Big Oil."
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of the Democrats who supported the bill, dismissed Murkowski's idea that victims of the recent BP oil spill along the Gulf Coast could recoup their losses through their own suits. "I know my distinguished colleague from Alaska knows what happened in the Exxon Valdez case -- that took 20 years for claimants to try to get their just response, and some of them fell off along the way because they couldn't hang in there and they lost everything," he said.
President Obama on Friday called
finger pointing and blame-shifting over the oil spill a "ridiculous spectacle." But the president criticized the "cozy relationship" between oil and gas industries and federal regulatory agencies and called for "top to bottom reform."
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