WASHINGTON - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar caught sharp criticism from lawmakers Tuesday over the government's failures in overseeing offshore oil drilling, and he acknowledged his department had been lax in holding industry accountable.
Salazar, in his first appearance before Congress since the April 20 accident that unleashed a massive Gulf oil spill, promised an overhaul of the agency that regulates offshore oil drilling to give it "more tools, more resources, more independence and greater authority."
Even as legislators in Washington debated what went wrong, evidence of the dimensions of the problem only grew. Federal regulators nearly tripled the federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico where fishing is shut down because of the spill.
And government scientists were studying aerial photos to see if oil from the spill had entered a powerful current that could take it to Florida. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., in opening a congressional hearing into the spill, said Congress wanted to explore "the role of regulatory failure" in the accident and what President Barack Obama has acknowledged for years has been a "cozy relationship" between government regulators and the oil and gas industry.
While the cause of the accident at the BP PLC well and spill has yet to be pinpointed, information uncovered so far raises the question of where the Minerals Management Service, the Interior agency that oversees offshore drilling, was in ensuring that wells are drilled safely, said Bingaman. Salazar promised an overhaul of federal regulations and said blame for the BP spill rests with both industry and the government.
"There will be tremendous lessons to be learned here," he told legislators, adding that changes in federal law were surely needed. But Salazar cautioned against overreaction, noting that the Gulf waters produce nearly a third of the nation's oil. How the government -- including Congress -- responds to the offshore disaster is crucial, said Salazar, noting that the Challenger space shuttle disaster shut down the space program for 2 1/2 years and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident "shut down the nuclear industry for 30 years."
Salazar said the "blame game" should be set aside until the problem is fixed and the flow of oil is shut off from the BP well 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. He said he expects a report to the president on the spill, due in 30 days, will produce recommendations to improve safety oversight. That didn't satisfy some of the senators.
"It is long past time to drain the safety and environmental swamp that is MMS," declared Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "This agency has been in denial about safety problems for years." Wyden said it was time for the government to "play catch-up ball in a hurry."
Salazar acknowledged problems at the agency. "We need to clean up that house," he said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., noted there had not been a major oil well blowout and spill in the Gulf for decades and asked whether both government and industry had become lax.
"I would say, yes," replied Salazar. Salazar denied reports that MMS had approved a number of new oil drilling applications in deep waters of the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill. "We have hit the pause button," Salazar said. He said no new deep water drilling applications have been approved since April 20, or will be drilled until a safety report is completed on the BP spill.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told the committee that about a dozen applications had been received since April 20. The 2 1/2-hour hearing by the Senate energy panel was one of three on Tuesday into the oil spill.
The congressional scrutiny came as BP, after three weeks, appeared to be gaining some control over the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf. The company said it was capturing 40 percent of the 5,000 barrels a day of oil believed by BP to be flowing from the well.
Some scientists, however, believe the amount of gushing oil may well be much greater. There were ominous signs of the potential environmental fallout along the Gulf and possibly as far as the Florida Keys and beyond. The U.S. Coast Guard reported that 20 tar balls were found off Key West on Monday. It will require a lab analysis to determine their origin.