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Proposed spill penalty: A year of profits

By Blake Ellis, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Companies responsible for oil spills could be forced to give up a year's worth of profits under a bill introduced in the Senate on Thursday.

The Oil Spill Response and Assistance Act was proposed in response to BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The bill would double the current $75 million cap on economic damages to $150 million or expose a company to damages equal to the last four quarters of its profits, whichever is greater. (See correction below.)

"Making a company at fault pay their last four quarters of profits is a much more effective way to ensure that energy companies actually pay for their mistakes without chasing many of them out of business," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who introduced the bill with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

For BP, the new law would result in a $20 billion liability cap, equal to its last four quarters of profits, according to Vitter's office. Costs to clean up an oil spill are not capped.

The proposal to raise the liability limit is the latest effort in Congress to crack down on companies found to be responsible for oil spills.

"As it stands, the cap on damages is too low, which leaves taxpayers exposed to the risk of paying the steep costs of cleaning up oil spills," said Vitter.

In addition, Vitter and Sessions proposed that oil companies be required to have more containment barriers, or booms, to be used in the event of a spill.

The deepwater oil well owned by BP (BP) is 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. It is now leaking some 200,000 gallons of crude a day following an explosion April 20 that claimed 11 lives.

The bill would also force all agencies involved with the BP spill to submit "thorough" reports on the incident by Sept. 1.

Earlier, other lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced bills raising the liability cap from $75 million to $10 billion.

Some lawmakers have expressed doubt that Congress can make such changes retroactively. Others, however, point to the Superfund, a major environmental cleanup law passed in the 1980s that forced polluters to reimburse the government for past toxic cleanups.

A bill that would raise the cap to $10 billion, sponsored by Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., was blocked Thursday after the three lawmakers pushed for Senate approval.

But given the public outrage over the spill, and the fact that it's an election year, there's a good chance the cap will eventually be raised.

At the same time, some experts warn that an increase in the liability cap could force all oil companies to pay more for insurance to drill offshore.

Correction: An original version of this article mischaracterized the liability cap under the Vitter-Sessions bill. To top of page

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