Salazar: Gulf spill probe will affect decision on offshore drilling plans

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar used his first Capitol Hill appearance since the April 20 Gulf of Mexico oil spill to defend his record of reforms and assure lawmakers that the investigations into the spill will factor into the administration’s offshore-drilling plans.

Salazar also acknowledged the need to overhaul offshore-drilling regulations in the wake of the spill. He pointed to recent proposals such as expanding environmental reviews of company drilling plans, and said other steps to improve safety are forthcoming.

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His assurances follow new attacks on Obama administration plans announced in late March to expand offshore oil-and-gas leasing in the 2012-2017 period. Environmentalists and some coastal-state lawmakers have called the spill evidence that the White House should reconsider.

Salazar, in testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, pointed to a joint probe of the spill by Interior and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a review that the National Academy of Engineering will conduct.

“The findings of the joint investigation and the independent National Academy of Engineering will provide us with the facts and help us understand what happened on the Deepwater Horizon,” Salazar said. “Those findings, and the work of the Outer Continental Shelf [OCS] Safety Oversight Board, will help inform the implementation of the administration’s comprehensive energy strategy for the OCS.”

Salazar also said the independent commission to probe the spill that President Barack Obama is creating will help inform energy policies.

Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) — the branch that regulates offshore drilling — has come under heavy criticism following the April 20 explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig and the subsequent spill that oil giant BP has yet to fully contain.

Salazar said he began taking several steps as soon as he took office to reform the troubled MMS, which was the subject of a number of critical reports by Interior’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office during the George W. Bush administration. “We need to clean up that house,” Salazar said.

Salazar noted, for instance, that he quickly issued new ethics standards when he took office, and also pointed to more recent actions he initiated in the wake of the Gulf spill, such as the creation of the safety oversight board within Interior.

Salazar announced last week that he will carve up the agency, which both regulates drilling and collects billions in leasing and royalty revenue for federal coffers. He intends to create a separate and independent safety and environmental enforcement agency.

Interior has halted issuance of new deepwater drilling permits pending the results of a 30-day safety review the White House ordered late last month. Salazar told lawmakers that this quick review, expected to be issued May 28, will lead to new safeguards.

“There will be a number of recommendations that will come forth,” Salazar said. “In the near term, the report that we will present to the president will have recommendations on enhanced safety measures.”

Salazar, under questioning from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), acknowledged that Interior needs better regulation of blowout-prevention devices. The blowout preventer for the BP well now gushing into the Gulf failed to deploy properly.

Asked if MMS has adequately regulated the devices, Salazar replied, “The answer is no.”

Some of the changes at MMS will occur under the administration’s existing powers, while others would require approval from Capitol Hill.

The White House wants Congress to change a 30-day statutory deadline for MMS to act on oil-and-gas company exploration plans. Salazar wants to allow 90 days, which could be extended  to complete environmental and safety reviews.

Salazar also defended the speed of the administration’s response to the spill, which Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) questioned. “The federal government was a bit slow moving into this area,” Sessions said.

Salazar repeated the now-familiar Obama administration comment that there has been an aggressive response to the April 20 rig disaster since “day one.” He noted that David Hayes, Interior’s deputy secretary, was immediately dispatched to the region “without a change of underwear and without a toothbrush.”