Sen. Lieberman laments absence of witness from Interior agency

The federal agency that regulates offshore oil drilling declined to send a witness to a Senate hearing Monday on the government and industry response to the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Lieberman chairs, had requested that a top official from the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) appear. The panel is probing the adequacy of BP’s federally approved oil drilling and spill response plans.

“I regret that the MMS leadership has chosen not to appear before our committee today, because they really need to be asked the same questions I am going to ask Homeland Security, the Coast Guard and BP,” Lieberman said Monday afternoon as the hearing began.

“The secretary will be the first to appear on behalf of the Department of the Interior and will do so on Tuesday in front of two different Senate Committees,” Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said in an e-mail.

The Monday hearing included testimony from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a top U.S. Coast Guard official and BP America President Lamar McKay. Napolitano defended the federal government’s “all-hands-on-deck” response to what she called an “unprecedented and unique problem.”

“We planned for a worst-case scenario from the moment the explosion occurred and now, almost four weeks later, we are continuing to sustain a strong and effective response,” she said.

Lieberman said the committee may ask Interior Secretary Ken Salazar or an MMS official to appear at a subsequent hearing.

Salazar is testifying Tuesday before two other Senate committees: Energy and Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works. Lieberman opened the hearing with an attack on federal oversight of offshore drilling. He faulted MMS for approving inadequate BP plans.

“Did our government, through MMS, require an oil spill response plan adequate to the widest range of possible dangers, including the failure of a blowout preventer?” Lieberman asked, referring to the failure of a device that is supposed to cut off damaged wells. “It sure appears that they did not.”

MMS has come under fire in the wake of the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig and subsequent spill that BP has so far been unable to contain.

The Obama administration has vowed several steps to improve the agency’s environmental oversight. On Friday, the administration announced it would review how MMS implements the National Environmental Policy Act and endangered-species laws.  On May 11, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he’s dividing MMS, which both regulates offshore drilling and collects billions of dollars in royalties. He said he’s creating a new offshore environmental and safety agency that will include what had been MMS’s inspection, investigation and enforcement operations.

Multiple Capitol Hill and Obama administration probes of the Deepwater Horizon accident are under way. Lieberman emphasized his committee’s goal is not to determine why the rig exploded or why the well cut-off device failed. He said  the panel is probing the federal and industry preparation for such accidents, and the response in the aftermath.

Lieberman said that new deepwater wells should not be permitted and drilled until questions about spill preparation and safeguards are resolved.

The administration has already announced a pause in issuing new offshore drilling permits until at least May 28, the due date for a 30-day safety review ordered by the White House.