Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Grilled by skeptical lawmakers, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday acknowledged that lax oversight of offshore drilling by his agency may have contributed to the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but he cautioned against an overreaction against the practice.

Saying that the Gulf waters produce nearly a third of the nation’s oil, Mr. Salazar noted the importance of offshore drilling to emerging energy policy. He said the Challenger disaster delayed the space program for 2½ years and Three Mile Island “shut down the nuclear industry for 30 years.”

Sen. Bob Bennett, Utah Republican, expressed hope “we don’t pull back.”

“The country made a very serious mistake following Three Mile Island by pulling back with respect to nuclear power,” Mr. Bennett said.

Mr. Salazar’s appearances before two of the three Senate panels holding hearings Tuesday on the giant oil spill came as the federal officials kept a wary eye on the expanding dimensions of the problem. The government increased the area of the Gulf where fishing is shut down to 46,000 square miles, or about 19 percent of federal waters. That’s up from about 7 percent before.

“There will be tremendous lessons to be learned here,” Mr. Salazar told a Senate panel in his first appearance before Congress since the April 20 blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Government scientists were anxiously surveying the Gulf to determine if the oil had entered a powerful current that could take it to Florida and eventually up the East Coast. Tar balls that washed up on Florida’s Key West were shipped to a Coast Guard laboratory in Connecticut to determine if they came from the Gulf spill.

New underwater video released by BP PLC, the oil giant that owns a majority interest in the blown well, showed oil and gas erupting under pressure in large, dark clouds from its crippled blowout preventer safety device on the ocean floor. The leaks resembled a geyser on land. The five-minute clip apparently was recorded late Saturday and Sunday afternoon from aboard a remotely operated submarine.

Mr. Salazar, testifying before the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, promised an overhaul of federal regulations and said blame for the BP spill rests with both industry and the government, particularly his agency’s Minerals Management Service.

“We need to clean up that house,” Mr. Salazar said of the service. While most of the agency’s 1,700 employees are reliable and trustworthy, he said, there were “a few bad apples.”

President Obama, who has decried the “cozy relationship” between government regulators and the energy industry, has proposed splitting the agency into two parts to separate regulatory duties from those who collect royalty fees from oil and gas companies.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, the committee chairman, said the panel’s mission was to decipher “the cascade of failures that caused the catastrophic blowout.” In addition, he said, Congress needs to figure what must be done to make sure it never happens again.

Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, pointed to an AP investigation’s findings that the rig that exploded was allowed to operate “without safety documentation required by government regulations.”

BP said Tuesday it was collecting about 84,000 gallons a day from a mile-long tube drawing oil from the blown-out well to a ship on the surface. But it cautioned that increasing the flow through the tube would be difficult.

Mr. Obama plans to establish a presidential commission to look into the disaster, modeled on those for the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

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