Salazar: US Could Have Done More on Offshore Safety

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones Newswires), July 21, 2010

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday came close to accepting some responsibility for the BP oil spill, telling a U.S. House panel that government could have done more to ensure safety.

"Prior administrations and this administration have not done as much as we could have done relative to making sure that there was safer production in the outercontinental shelf," Salazar told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. Officials "were lulled into a sense of safety," he said.

The uproar over the blown-out well, which has stopped gushing oil due to the installation of a new cap, has prompted the Interior Department to ban deepwater drilling until Nov. 30 as it puts together new safety policies. The department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has also imposed new regulations on drilling in shallow waters, including requiring an analysis of risks and worst-case scenarios.

The Obama administration's approach to offshore drilling has been in the spotlight because the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig occurred less than one month after the Obama administration announced plans to expand offshore-drilling as part of an effort to build goodwill among Republicans at a time when the White House wanted Congress to pass energy and climate legislation. By May 27, President Barack Obama had reversed course and halted the development of exploratory wells in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D, Calif.) posed a tough question to Salazar, asking "why was BP able to design such a risky well?" Congressional investigators have released documents showing that BP skimped on key parts in the well in an effort to save money. BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward has said that Interior's Minerals Management Service, which has since been renamed, signed off on the company's well-design choices.

Salazar said that an investigation of what went wrong was ongoing. "We're looking at all those issues," he said.

The Interior Department's reliance on "categorical exclusions," a process that allows the government to forego some environmental reviews, came under criticism from Rep. John Dingell (D, Mich.) "I am troubled," Dingell said. "Where in the statute does NEPA allow for categorical exclusions?" Dingell asked, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act.

Salazar's testimony came at a hearing that is the first to focus exclusively on the role of regulators in the period leading up to the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Former Interior secretaries Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne, who served under the Bush administration, testified earlier and defended their actions.

Democrats leveled some of their harshest questions at Norton.

"There was a deregulatory ticking time bomb that was set while you were secretary that has now exploded," Rep. Ed Markey (D, Mass.) told her.

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