Congress turns its attention to federal role in Gulf Coast oil leak

Congress turns its focus to the federal role in the ongoing Gulf oil leak this week after an initial round of hearings probed the culpability of oil companies tied to the spill.

Four Senate committees will hold hearings on the Gulf spill on Monday and Tuesday, to be followed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday.

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Oil-industry executives testified before three congressional panels on Tuesday and Wednesday last week, largely blaming each other for the accident, which may pose more of an environmental threat than originally believed. Friday reports said the rate of the spill could be three or four times higher than the 5,000-barrels-a-day estimate that had been thought to be pouring into the Gulf.

Although the congressional investigation has just begun, a House panel has uncovered a number of potential equipment problems on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that could have contributed to the spill.

A key piece of safety equipment had several issues: a hydraulic leak that may have left it with too little power to shear the drill pipe closed, a dead battery and wiring problems, said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.

Even fully operational shearing rams on the blowout preventer designed to pinch a pipe closed in a blowout can’t cut through the threaded parts where drilling pipe is fitted together.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), meanwhile, said the well failed a critical pressure test prior to the massive explosion, which killed 11 workers and led to the leak.

As a growing number of congressional panels investigates the spill, a team of government and company officials are continuing to work to plug the ruptured well. But after three weeks, they have so far been unable to do so.

On Friday, President Barack Obama blasted oil executives for blaming each other for the spill during their testimony on Capitol Hill. Obama called the finger-pointing a “ridiculous spectacle” and pledged to halt what he said was a “cozy relationship” between federal regulators and the industry.

The actions of federal regulators could draw more scrutiny this week. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hear testimony from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Monday on the federal government’s response. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works Committees, which heard from the oil executives this week, will be briefed Tuesday. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works committees, which heard from the oil executives last week, will be briefed on the federal government’s response.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will testify before both panels. At Environment and Public Works, Salazar will be joined by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Helen Sutley, as well as other government officials.

While lawmakers have blasted BP and the other companies, federal regulators also face allegations that they have been far too lax in policing offshore oil-and-gas drilling.

Obama administration officials rushed last week to get ahead of the criticism.

Salazar on May 11 said he would carve up Interior’s troubled Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore drilling and collects billions of dollars in royalties. He’s creating a new Interior environmental and safety agency that will include what had been MMS’s inspection, investigation and enforcement operations.

Also, the White House is asking Congress to alter the 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 further to complete environmental and safety reviews.

The Senate Commerce Committee is also holding a hearing on Tuesday morning. A witness list was not immediately available.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has a hearing scheduled for Wednesday to examine the spill.

The following week holds more hearings: The House Natural Resources and Judiciary committees will each examine issues relating to the spill that fall under their jurisdiction.

Ben Geman contributed to this report.

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