Offshore drilling agency refuses to send witness to Senate oil spill hearing

The federal agency that regulates offshore oil drilling declined to send a witness to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s hearing Monday on the federal response to the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said.

The committee had requested the appearance of a top official from the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service. Lieberman’s 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 commenced.

The Monday hearing includes Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a top U.S. Coast guard official and BP America President Lamar McKay. Lieberman said that 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 about the catastrophic accident at the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig: 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 said, referring to a failure of 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 oil giant BP has 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 underway. Lieberman emphasized that his committee’s goal is not to look at the specifics of why the rig exploded or why the well cut-off device failed. Instead, he said, the panel is probing the federal and industry preparation for such accidents, and the response to the blowout and subsequent spill.

Lieberman said that new deepwater wells should not be permitted and drilled until questions about spill preparation and safeguards are resolved. The Obama administration has already announced a pause in issuing new offshore drilling permits until at least May 28, when a 30-day safety review that the White House ordered in the wake of the spill is submitted.