David Vitter's plan to ease offshore oil drilling

The Republican's proposal earned conservative praise last year because oil spills were thought to be unlikely

Published May 12, 2010 12:01PM (EDT)

Last year, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., began pushing what he called a "No Cost Stimulus Plan," a Republican alternative to the $787 billion package the White House wanted.

At the heart of the plan, which Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, sponsored in the House, was a proposal to make it easier to drill for offshore oil. "The No Cost Stimulus Act pays for itself and does not require additional borrowing against our future," Vitter declared in March 2009. "It harnesses energy production to stimulate job growth, and generates revenue for both the local and national economy. Increasing energy production creates American jobs without having to fork over another $1 trillion and instead earns money back to the federal government through increased revenues from royalties."

Drill, baby, drill! Naturally, conservatives loved the idea. The Heritage Foundation reviewed Vitter's proposal and gave its blessing:

The No Cost Stimulus bill would expedite the environmental review and lease sale process. Improved technologies have drastically reduced the environmental impact and the probability of oil spills, and while the Vitter-Bishop bill still includes an environmental review process, it would reduce needless regulatory red tape and opportunities for anti-energy activists to file administrative appeals and lawsuits.

(Salon added the emphasis.)

Of course, what sounded like praise in March 2009 maybe doesn't look so good in May 2010, as the Deepwater Horizon spews 210,000 gallons of BP's oil into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Not many people would agree with Heritage that "improved technologies have drastically reduced the environmental impact and the probability of oil spills," at least not while there's an oil slick the size of Connecticut drifting toward land. (Vitter aides didn't immediately respond to a question about whether he still supported his No Cost plan.)

Then again, Vitter hasn't been shy about defending oil companies, even since the spill began. During Tuesday's hearing examining the crisis, Vitter announced that the whole thing was "a mistake," saying the hearing was "pulling some amount of focus and resources away from that ongoing disaster."

Louisiana being Louisiana, politicians in both parties tend to be friendly to Big Oil. The industry provides a fair number of jobs on the Gulf Coast, and the state earns a ton of revenue from royalties and taxes. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., who's running against Vitter this fall, still supports offshore drilling just the same as Vitter does. Even President Obama wound up pushing for more drilling -- though he backed off that plan after the BP spill.

But considering the administration has, effectively, admitted that the oversight and regulation of offshore drilling wasn't tight enough -- by proposing to split the federal agency that oversees the industry into two parts, one that enforces the rules and another that collects checks from oil companies -- perhaps reducing "needless regulatory red tape" on ocean wells, as Vitter's proposal would have done, isn't the solution to America's problems right now.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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2010 Elections David Vitter Gulf Oil Spill War Room