Democrats step up probe of Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion

Capitol Hill Democrats and the White House have launched multiple inquiries into the Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion and spill that has quickly roiled the political battle over offshore drilling.

The Interior and Homeland Security departments on Tuesday said they have opened a wide joint investigation of last week's accident about 40 miles off Louisiana’s coast.

Their investigation will have the power to issue subpoenas, hold public hearings, call witnesses and take other steps to probe the cause of the accident, the agencies said.

White House officials including senior advisor Valerie Jarrett and energy advisor Carol Browner met Tuesday with top executives from oil giant BP, which leased the rig from owner Transocean.

Also on Tuesday, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) pressed BP and Transocean for documents and other information about their accident planning and response.

“A striking feature of the incident is the apparent lack of an adequate plan to contain the spreading environmental damage,” Waxman wrote in letters to the companies.

BP, in a statement Wednesday, pledged its “support for and cooperation with” the Obama administration and congressional probes.

The accident has left an oily sheen 600 miles in circumference, and an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil are leaking from the damaged subsea well a day.

Federal agencies and BP are working to contain the spill, which could cause major damage to fragile coastlines if it reaches shore.

Eleven workers on the rig are missing and are presumed to have died in the blast, which occurred April 20. The rig sank two days later.

The rig disaster will also be addressed at a May 6 hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about federal offshore oil-and-gas drilling plans. The hearing was planned before the accident, but it will now be a major focus, said Bill Wicker, a spokesman for committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is slated to be the sole witness, Wicker said Wednesday.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) told The Hill Tuesday that he is likely to hold a separate  hearing on the accident.

The accident comes amid a new White House push to expand domestic offshore oil-and-gas production.

The Interior Department envisions oil-and-gas leasing off mid-Atlantic and southeastern states, as well as wider development in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast (although it has also canceled several lease sales in the Artic seas to allow further study).

The climate and energy measure that Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are crafting also contains measures to promote wider drilling.

Environmentalists and some Democrats – such as New Jersey’s senators – say the spill should prompt reconsideration of plans to expand offshore development.