Washington (CNN) - Democratic senators from two coastal states Tuesday called on President Barack Obama to reverse his call for expanded offshore oil exploration after a massive spill from a damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I will make it short and to the point: The president's proposal for offshore drilling is dead on arrival," Florida Sen. Bill Nelson told reporters.
Nelson and New Jersey Democrats Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg are also backing legislation that would raise the legal cap on damages oil companies must pay for oil spills from $75 million to $10 billion. BP, the company that owns the damaged well off the coast of Louisiana, must pay the full cost of cleanup - but Menendez said $75 million won't begin to compensate coastal communities for the costs the spill could inflict.
Obama announced in March that he wanted to open large swaths of U.S. coastal waters in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas drilling, a move that upset many of the administration's environmentalist supporters. The administration is pushing for a new energy bill that would rein in U.S. output of carbon emissions blamed for an increase in global temperatures, and sponsors hoped it would bring enough Republicans - who have supported new oil exploration offshore - on board to support the bill.
But with a ruptured well spewing an estimated 210,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of crude into the Gulf of Mexico every day, Nelson said he would be willing to filibuster any bill that authorized new offshore wells. And Menendez said he wasn't willing to accept a tradeoff between the "obvious risk" of future spills and the oil produced, which he said would amount to "a few tablespoons of gasoline" for the average motorist.
Under federal law, BP is responsible for the cost of plugging the well and cleaning up the spill. But its liability for economic damages is limited to $75 million, with costs over that amount covered by a pool funded by an
8-cent-per-barrel tax on oil. And claims on that fund, currently about $1.6 billion, are limited to $1 billion per incident.
The legislation proposed by Lautenberg, Menendez and Nelson would raise the liability cap to $10 billion, eliminate the $1 billion-per-incident cap on the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and let those hurt by a spill that exhausts that fund claim future revenues, with interest.
BP's first-quarter profits in 2010 were $5.6 billion, Menendez said. "I think they can be responsible for their actions, and so do my colleagues," he said.
Obama's drilling proposal had the support of Democrats like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, where the oil industry is a major employer. But so is seafood, and the spill has endangered much of the habitat for shrimp, oysters and crab around the Gulf Coast. Landrieu told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday that industry needs more "fail-safe processes" and the federal government should share the revenue generated with the states.
"This might be 100 percent of the nation's oil, but right now it's 100 percent of our risk," she said. But she added, "This is not the time to retreat or back up."
"We have got to find out what happened, correct it, and then continue to produce the oil and gas and energy that this country needs to operate. We cannot run this business offshore," Landrieu said.
Updated: 1:01 p.m.