House Republicans are pushing through a series of bills aimed at easing restrictions on offshore drilling this week, but critics warn that buried in the legislation is a provision that would weaken the ability of affected states to take on big oil companies in court.
H.R. 1229, the “Putting the Gulf Back to Work Act,” would weaken President Obama’s moratorium on deep water drilling, which was imposed in the wake of the BP oil spill, but it also contains a provision that funnels civil suits regarding drilling permits to the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) is calling foul, arguing that the provision strips states like Florida and Alabama with their own drilling operations of the ability to sue in their own states’ courts. According to Deutch, the scheme is especially problematic because the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court has been criticized as especially close to oil companies — in one recent suit against an oil company, so many judges had to recuse themselves over conflicts of interest that the court didn’t have the necessary quorum of judges to hear the case. An investigation by a progressive legal advocacy group, Alliance For Justice, determined that several of the judges have extensive financial holdings in the oil industry and two frequently represented oil interests as lawyers.
“Beyond a power play by the oil industry, there is no conceivable explanation for barring courts within any state from considering cases related to oil leases and energy production off its own coastlines,” Deutch said in a statement. “Despite record breaking profits and painfully high gas prices, Republicans have again packed legislation full of giveaways for Big Oil.”
Deutch unsuccessfully offered an amendment on Tuesday stripping the bill of the relevant provision, section 202.
Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee argue that using the Fifth Circuit makes sense because their experience in the region most affected by offshore drilling gives them a professional advantage.
“The 5th Circuit is the one that comprises the Gulf states, whereas other circuits have states that aren’t on the Gulf Coast or have no drilling,” Jill Strait, a spokeswoman for the committee Republicans told TPM. “The goal of this provision is to create a targeted, experienced circuit court that can effectively and expeditiously rule on an offshore permitting civil action.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.