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Maryland lawmakers vote to impose strict liability for offshore oil spills

Moving to discourage drilling for oil and gas off Maryland’s coast, the House of Delegates voted Monday to make it easier to file lawsuits against companies responsible for offshore spills.
Moving to discourage drilling for oil and gas off Maryland’s coast, the House of Delegates voted Monday to make it easier to file lawsuits against companies responsible for offshore spills.

Moving to discourage drilling for oil and gas off Maryland’s coast, both chambers of the General Assembly voted Monday to make companies responsible for offshore spills easy targets for lawsuits.

The proposed legislation comes in response to the Trump administration’s decision to open up 90 percent of the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas exploration and drilling. The bill seeks to impose what is know as a “strict liability” standard on companies that drill off Maryland’s coast.

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The legislation defines drilling for fuel as an “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous activity” and makes a company liable even without a showing of negligence or intentional harm.

Lawmakers explained that while energy companies already face liability for any accidents under federal law, the bills passed Monday raise the possibility for civil action under state law. Other states where drilling occurs have similar laws on the books.

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The bill passed unanimously in the Senate, and 115-22 in the House.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, explained that Maryland does not have the power to prohibit offshore drilling. The Prince George’s County Democrat said adopting a strict liability standard is the most the state can do to discourage drilling.

The prospect of drilling in the mid-Atlantic has drawn broad opposition from Maryland elected officials, including Gov. Larry Hogan. The Republican governor has directed Attorney General Brian E. Frosh to investigate whether Maryland will be affected by the Trump policy and to bring legal action if it is.

The Senate also on Monday unanimously passed a resolution “expressing the strong and unequivocal opposition of the General Assembly of Maryland” to the prospect of drilling off of Maryland’s coast.

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