Government Failed to Enforce Oil Drilling Safety, Says Obama Official

May 21, 2010

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar conceded Tuesday that the U.S. government failed to hold the oil industry accountable and ensure safety in offshore oil drilling.

Salazar, in his first appearance before Congress since the April 20 Gulf accident, promised an overhaul of the agency that regulates offshore oil drilling to give it “more tools, more resources, more independence and greater authority.”

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, in opening a hearing into the spill, said Congress will examine “the role of regulatory failure” in the accident at the BP PLC oil rig that unleashed millions of gallons of oil into Gulf waters.

While the cause of the accident and spill has yet to be pinpointed, information uncovered so far raises the question of where the Minerals Management Service was in regulating the drilling process, said Bingaman.

Bingaman said he hopes to determine “the cascade of failures that caused the catastrophic blowout.”

Salazar, for his part, promised an overhaul of federal regulations despite industry reluctance to accept some of the changes.

“We have not and we will not back down on our reform agenda,” he told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Salazar said the administration “will not rest until we get this situation under control.”

He and other federal officials were expected to come under questioning for what the government did _ or did not do _ to prevent the oil spill, and how they have responded since oil started streaming into the Gulf last month.

Salazar, who oversees the federal agency that monitors offshore drilling, was testifying before two Senate committees. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen will testify at separate hearings, and oil company executives are back for a second round of questions.

The hearings come amid the first high-level resignation related to the oil spill and a decision by President Barack Obama to name a presidential commission to investigate the cause of the rig explosion that unleashed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, where engineers are struggling after three weeks to stop the flow.

The presidential panel will be similar to ones that examined the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, said a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been formally announced.

The commission would be one of nearly a dozen investigations and reviews launched since the April 20 explosion, although it probably would be the most comprehensive.

With BP PLC, the company that owns the well, finally gaining some control over the amount of oil spewing into the gulf, scientists are increasingly worried that huge plumes of crude already spilled could get caught in a current that would carry the mess all the way to the Florida Keys and beyond, damaging coral reefs and killing wildlife.

Researchers at the University of South Florida said Tuesday that oil from the spill has entered or is near the so-called loop current, and could reach Key West by Sunday.

The U.S. Coast Guard reported that 20 tar balls were found off Key West on Monday, but said a lab analysis would have to determine their origin. The Florida Park Service during a shoreline survey found balls that were about 3 to 8 inches in (8 to 20 centimeters) diameter.

Last week, Obama decried what he called a badly failed offshore drilling system and said failures extended to the federal government and its “cozy” relationship with oil companies. The Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling, has long been criticized for being too close to industry.

On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said government failures “certainly” include the Obama administration, which took office in January 2009.

“But my guess is you guys did some stories in the previous decade on what was going on at MMS, which is what caused Secretary Salazar, when he came in, to begin reforming that,” Gibbs told reporters.

Salazar, anticipating tough questioning by lawmakers, announced Monday he is tightening requirements for onshore oil and gas drilling. The new measures would not apply to oil rigs at sea, and Salazar had outlined the broad outlines of the reforms in January.

Even so, he tried to portray them as more evidence of the Obama administration’s aggressive response to the Gulf spill.

“The BP oil spill is a stark reminder of how we must continue to push ahead with the reforms we have been working on and which we know are needed,” Salazar said in a statement.

Chris Oynes, associate administrator of the minerals agency, became the first administration official to resign in the wake of the oil spill. Oynes, who was regional director in charge of Gulf offshore oil programs for 13 years before being promoted in 2007 to head all offshore drilling programs, informed colleagues he will retire at the end of the month, according to an e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.

Oynes, like other MMS officials, has come under criticism for being too close to the industry.

In the month since the oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers, BP has struggled to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton (90 metric ton) box that got clogged with icy crystals. Over the weekend, the oil company finally succeeded in using a stopper-and-tube combination to divert some of the gushing oil into a tanker.

BP said Tuesday the tube is now drawing 2,000 barrels a day for collection in a tanker ship on the surface, double the amount when it started operation. BP plans to keep slowly increasing the amount of oil captured by the pipe.

Associated Press writers H. Josef Hebert and Erica Werner in Washington and Jeffrey Collins in Hammond, Louisiana, contributed to this report.

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