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Oberstar calls for greater oil drilling safety

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, talks about working for the people during his 36 years in office, as he launched a re-election campaign Saturday in Bemidji and three other cities. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Liability caps on oil drilling accidents need to be eliminated and increased safety measures put in place, says U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District.

Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently held hearings on the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We need to go well beyond $75 million, perhaps even unlimited liability, because of what we see in the Gulf," Oberstar said Saturday in an interview after holding a campaign rally.

Companies have oil spill limited liability capped at $75 million, a figure unadjusted for years.

"It has not even been adjusted during the Bush years for the inflation index as the law provides," Oberstar said. "We're going to change that."

Oberstar's committee will also provide greater safety standards in placing deep sea oil rigs, he said.

"We need much stronger oversight measures for drilling operations in the U.S. coastal zone, economic zone," Oberstar said.

Oberstar's hearings revealed that the exploded BP rig was built in South Korea, is registered in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, whose registry is maintained by "a little-known company" in Reston, Va., and owned and operated by the foreign company British Petroleum, he said.

"That limits the ability of the Coast Guard to investigate and inspect the operations," he said.

A U.S.-flagged drill rig endures a two to three week inspection by the Coast Guard, while foreign-flagged rigs gets only six o eight hours, he said.

"We're going to change that," Oberstar said. "Anyone operating in our territorial waters ought to be a U.S.-flagged operation, and it ought to be subject to rigorous Coast Guard oversight and safety."

He said a blowout preventer was designed by the American Petroleum Institute, built by a U.S. company, owned by Swiss company Trans Ocean. "They never tested it at 5,000 feet below sea level; they had no experience with a failure of this dimension at those levels.

"There were no requirements by the Bush administration to test before you drill," he added. "We're going to change all of that."

Oberstar said House Republicans in the summer of 2008 kept saying, "Drill here, drill now." "They locked themselves in the House chamber with 'Drill here, drill now,'" he said. "What we didn't know they were saying was, 'Spill here, spill now.' What they should have been saying is, 'Inspect, certify and then drill.'"

A six-month moratorium now on new oil drilling is to allow certification and inspection, he said."It gives us time to rethink the entire drilling regime in deep waters."

The BP hole is at 5,000 feet below sea level, he said. That's 2,000 feet below the level that a Los Angeles class nuclear submarine can operate. "No human can go down there and inspect this. There's no capability to bring a person down and see what's happening and then make it better."

He said that when an aircraft takes off, and flies 7 miles above the Earth, "we get it right before they leave the ground. ... You've got to get it right before you go down and drill."

Oberstar's bill will put in place the certification procedures and inspection procedures "to ensure that drilling at those depths will be safe, that there are backup systems to protect in the case of a failure. There was no backup system here."

In other bills, Oberstar said the committee's Clean Water Restoration Act is stalled in the Senate and probably won't be heard this session, leaving it for next year.

"I have most of the concerns and objections worked out," he said. There isn't enough floor time to consider the bill, he added.

The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act is in conference committee, but Oberstar expects a final bill to President Obama by the July recess. It includes provisions that can help the Bemidji Regional Airport with funding a jetway and parking lot improvements.

"Those are good investments, they're necessary," Oberstar said. "This is a very fine airport, a first-rate airport, a very competitive airport."