Interior Secretary Admits Lax Overseeing of Drilling

WASHINGTON (AP) - Grilled by skeptical lawmakers, Interior
Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday acknowledged his agency had been
lax in overseeing offshore drilling activities and that contributed
to the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"There will be tremendous lessons to be learned here," Salazar
told a Senate panel in his first appearance before Congress since
the April 20 blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Describing pending reforms in the Interior Department, Salazar
cited a "collective responsibility" for the spill that included
the federal agency he manages, he said.

His appearances before two of the three Senate panels holding
hearings Tuesday on the giant oil spill came as federal officials
kept a wary eye on the expanding dimensions of the problem. The
government increased the area of the Gulf where fishing is shut
down to 46,000 square miles, or about 19 percent of federal waters.
That's up from about 7 percent before.

Government scientists were anxiously surveying the Gulf to
determine if the oil had entered a powerful current that could take
it to Florida and eventually up the East Coast. Tar balls that
washed up on Florida's Key West were shipped to a Coast Guard
laboratory in Connecticut to determine if they came from the Gulf
spill.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen told the Senate Commerce
Committee the growing size and scattershot nature of the oil spill
was creating "severe challenges" in containing it and cleaning it
up. He called it more complicated than any spill he's ever seen.

"What we're basically trying to do is protect the whole coast
at one time," Allen said.

New underwater video released by BP PLC, the oil giant that owns
a majority interest in the blown well, showed oil and gas erupting
under pressure in large, dark clouds from its crippled blowout
preventer safety device on the ocean floor. The leaks resembled a
geyser on land. The five-minute clip apparently was recorded late
Saturday and Sunday afternoon from aboard a remotely operated
submarine.

Salazar, testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural
Resources Committee, promised an overhaul of federal regulations
and said blame for the BP spill rests with both industry and the
government, particularly his agency's Minerals Management Service.

"We need to clean up that house," Salazar said of the service.
While most of the agency's 1,700 employees are reliable and
trustworthy, he said, there were "a few bad apples."

President Barack Obama, who has decried the "cozy
relationship" between government regulators and the energy
industry, has proposed splitting the agency into two parts to
separate regulatory duties from those who collect royalty fees from
oil and gas companies.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the committee chairman, said the
panel's mission was to decipher "the cascade of failures that
caused the catastrophic blowout." In addition, he said, Congress
needs to figure what must be done to make sure it never happens
again.

While the cause of the accident at the well has yet to be
pinpointed, information uncovered so far raises the question of
where the Minerals Management Service was, Bingaman said.

"It is long past time to drain the safety and environmental
swamp that is MMS," declared Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "This agency
has been in denial about safety problems for years."

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., pointed to an AP investigation that
found that rig that exploded was allowed to operate "without
safety documentation required by government regulations" and that
the government conducted fewer oil rig inspections than it
initially claimed and less than its policy requires.

BP said Tuesday it was collecting about 84,000 gallons a day
from a mile-long tube drawing oil from the blown-out well to a ship
on the surface. But it cautioned that increasing the flow through
the tube would be difficult.

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, told the Senate Commerce Committee it
is still unclear whether any of the oil from the spill has reached
the powerful Gulf current that would take it to the Florida Keys
and possibly beyond.

But if that were to happen, said Lubchenco, "it would likely be
significantly weathered and degraded and possibly diluted" and be
in the form of tar balls not fresh oil. She said tar balls already
found on the Florida Keys may have stemmed from the original BP rig
explosion on April 20 and not the flow of oil from the well and
pipes at sea bottom.

That assessment gave little solace to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.,
who said the possibility that oil could be flowing in a current
that moves toward the keys and within a mile of southern Florida's
beaches is "the nightmare"' he has long feared from offshore oil
drilling.

Salazar said there are "robust regulations" on offshore
drilling that need to be enforced and some - such as those on the
blowout protector that failed - that need to be improved. But, he
insisted, "the conclusion that this is an unregulated industry is
not correct."

And Salazar, a former senator from Colorado, put some of the
blame on Congress. A law specifying that approval of a deepwater
drilling permit must be approved within 30 days "is an impediment
to being able to do the kind of assessment that's needed to be
done," he said. The MMS has been criticized for rushing through
BP's permit for the Deepwater Horizon well without an additional
broad environmental impact review, something that would have taken
much longer than a month.

Obama said Tuesday he was disappointed that legislation to
increase the liability cap for oil spill damages from $75 million
to $10 billion had been blocked by GOP objections in the Senate.
Objections raised last week by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and
Tuesday by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma kept the bill from being
passed by bipartisan consent.

"This maneuver threatens to leave taxpayers, rather than the
oil companies, on the hook," Obama said in a statement.

But BP repeatedly has said it expects to pay out more than the
current federal liability cap, and it did so again on Tuesday.

"Our intent is to pay all legitimate claims," said Lamar
McKay, president of BPAmerica.

"The word 'legitimate' makes me nervous," interrupted Sen. Jay
Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

"It shouldn't," said McKay. "It just means it needs to be
substantiated."

Salazar denied reports that MMS had approved a number of new oil
drilling applications in deep waters of the Gulf since the
Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill. He said no new deep water
drilling has begun since April 20, and no wells will be drilled
until a safety report is completed on the BP spill later this
month.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told the committee that
about a dozen applications were approved after April 20, but were
suspended on May 6 before work began.


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