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Amid Scrutiny After Spill, Oil Lobby Weighs Response

Oil industry lobbyists are working hard to soften the blow they know will be coming amid hearings in Congress and as oil continues to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

Democrats on Capitol Hill cast the situation in black and white.

"Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the taxpayers or multibillion-dollar oil companies?" Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) asked May 13.

Menendez proposed a bill to lift the $75 million cap on corporate liability for economic damages from oil spills. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was ready, and blocked the bill -- at least for now.

The drive for legislation and the maneuver to block it are likely to play out many more times this summer -- and fall -- as the oil industry braces for an onslaught of legislation. Democrats want to pass a bill that will raise the liability limit to $10 billion.

Lobbying Contributions

"The oil industry, to read the newspaper, you would think is the most powerful lobbying group in the Congress," said lobbyist J. Bennett Johnston, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana. "And the fact of the matter is, it is so far down the list you almost can't find it."

It's true that oil doesn't have as many powerful allies as it used to -- like Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s or Vice President Dick Cheney or Bennett Johnston himself, who in the 1980s and '90s chaired both of the Senate panels overseeing the oil industry.

But the industry has made about $13 million in campaign contributions for the upcoming midterm elections. Last year, it spent $39 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Now, Democratic leaders are weighing all sorts of legislation: tougher safety regulations, more environmental protection and new taxes on the industry.

The April 20 explosion on the drilling rig owned by Transocean Ltd. and operated by energy giant BP killed 11 people.

BP, which is responsible for the spill, has hired the Brunswick Group, a crisis-management firm with deep ties to the Democratic establishment. Transocean retained former Republican Rep. Bill Brewster as a lobbyist.

No Unified Response

It's clear the industry won't be speaking with a single voice.

For example, the drilling companies that work in shallow water are trying to distance themselves from the deep-water operations where the blowout occurred.

More specifically, they want to be exempted from the Obama administration's moratorium on new drilling permits. They have hired lobbyist Robert Livingston, a former Republican congressman from Louisiana.

Livingston argues that the shallow drillers will be unfairly hurt by the moratorium because they don't work a well for months and months the way the deep-water rigs do.

Livingston says his clients use old, proven technology -- not as risky as the deep-water wells.

"That is technology that's only been developed in the last 10 or 15 years, and obviously it has its drawbacks," he said. "To equate all offshore drilling with that process, it would be unfair and unwise."

Tyson Slocum, the energy policy program director of the progressive group Public Citizen, says he isn't counting the oil industry out.

"Big Oil's legislative agenda is still able to function, even after a devastating event like we've got going on in the Gulf of Mexico right now," Slocum said.

An industry lawyer was more direct. Speaking on background, after his boss told him not to, he said: "Never, ever, ever, ever underestimate the influence of the oil industry in Congress."

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Transcript

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

As the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico spreads, Congress is talking about new laws. And that's got oil industry lobbyists working hard to soften measures the industry believes will be coming. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Democrats on Capitol Hill cast the situation in black and white. Here's New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez back on May 13th.

Senator ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the taxpayers or multibillion-dollar oil companies?

OVERBY: Menendez proposed a bill to lift the $75 million cap on corporate liability for economic damages from oil spills. But Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski was ready. She caught the attention of the presiding officer.

Unidentified Man: Senator from Alaska.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): Mr. President, reserving the right to object.

Unidentified Man: Objection noted.

OVERBY: And with that, Murkowski blocked the bill - at least for the moment.

But the drive for legislation and the maneuver to block it are likely to play out many more times this summer and fall as the oil industry braces for an onslaught of legislation. Lobbyist J. Bennett Johnston, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana, is one of the industry's old hands in Washington. He speaks humbly of its clout.

Mr. J. BENNETT JOHNSTON (Lobbyist): The oil industry, to read the newspaper, you would think is the most powerful lobbying group in the Congress. And the fact of the matter, it is so far down the list, you almost can't find it.

OVERBY: It's true that oil doesn't have as many powerful allies as it used to, allies like Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s or Vice President Dick Cheney, or Bennett Johnston himself. Back in the 1980s and '90s, he chaired both of the Senate panels overseeing the oil industry.

But the industry has made about $13 million in campaign contributions for the upcoming midterm elections. And last year it spent $39 million on lobbying. That's according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Now Democratic leaders are weighing all sorts of legislation: tougher safety regulations, more environmental protection, and new taxes on the industry.

BP, which is responsible for the spill, has hired a crisis-management firm, the Brunswick Group, with deep ties to the Democratic establishment. Transocean Limited, which owns the oil rig that sank, retained former Republican Congressman Bill Brewster as a lobbyist. So it's pretty clear that the industry won't be speaking with a single voice.

Take the drilling companies that work in shallow water. They're trying to separate themselves from the deep-water operations where the blowout occurred. More specifically, they want to be exempted from the Obama administration's moratorium on new drilling permits. So they hired lobbyist Robert Livingston, a former Republican congressman from Louisiana.

He argues that the shallow drillers will be unfairly hurt by the moratorium because they don't work a well for months and months the way the deep-water rigs do. Livingston says his clients use old proven technology - not so risky as the deep-water wells.

Mr. ROBERT LIVINGSTON (Lobbyist): That is technology that's only been developed in the last 10 or 15 years, and obviously it has its drawbacks. To equate all offshore drilling with that process, it would be unfair and unwise.

OVERBY: Tyson Slocum of the progressive group Public Citizen says he's not counting the oil industry out.

Mr. TYSON SLOCUM (Public Citizen): Big Oil's legislative agenda is still able to function, even after a devastating event like we've got going on in the Gulf of Mexico right now.

OVERBY: An industry lawyer was more direct. Speaking on background, after his boss told him not to, he said: Never, ever, ever, ever underestimate the influence of the oil industry in Congress.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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