The state House is considering a bill that would lift a cap on liability for damages caused by oil spills.
In 1989 in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, the state adopted a cap on damages that mirrors the federal cap, currently $75 million. The House bill would set no limit on what the state could collect from a company responsible for a spill of oil or other hazardous materials off the coast.
And if the bill were to become law before any oil from the BP spill reaches the state, there would be no cap on damages that could be found against BP, said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who is one of the bill's primary sponsors.
A BP-sized spill off the state's coast could wreak havoc, destroy wildlife and harm tourism and livelihoods for decades, Harrison said. A limit on damages couldn't account for that harm.
"If someone destroys our natural resources...I don't know how you account for all those losses," Harrison said.
The bill would also force a review of the requirements for permitting offshore drilling and of the state's plans for handling an oil spill. Harrison said state officials are already preparing for the possibility that oil from the Gulf of Mexico will make it to the state's coast.
The bill seems likely to meet objection from those who say it would end offshore drilling in North Carolina before it begins. With no cap, a company might not be able to buy liability insurance, and therefore could not afford to explore for oil or natural gas.
"My only concern is we don't do anything that does prevent offshore exploration because we won't have tourists coming in either if we have $8 a gallon gas," said Rep. Pat McElraft, an Emerald Isle Republican.
Rep. Pryor Gibson, an Anson County Democrat, noted that the bill could have unforeseen consequences. He made a point of the fact that representatives of the petroleum industry have not weighed in on the issue.
"I think we're probably doing more than we know we're doing," Gibson said. "I think it's too much too fast."