Top U.S. offshore drilling official abruptly retires

McClatchy NewspapersMay 17, 2010 

BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay testifies Monday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

WASHINGTON — The top federal official in charge of overseeing offshore drilling retired abruptly on Monday as BP's chief operating officer pledged that his company would never pump oil from the runaway Deepwater Horizon well that exploded, killed 11 workers and began spewing millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Some in Congress welcomed Chris Oynes' resignation as the head of the Minerals Management Service's offshore drilling program as a sign that the administration would follow through on President Barack Obama's pledge to end the MMS's cozy relationship with the oil industry.

Oynes had been the MMS's associate director in charge of offshore drilling since 2007 and was appointed to the post after 13 years overseeing the permitting process in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I hope Chris Oynes' decision to retire signals an understanding that a changing of the guard is necessary to cure MMS of the many ills it endured during the previous Administration," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., the chairman of the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, in a statement. "Today's announcement is one of several steps that will be necessary to fundamentally reform MMS, and it represents an opportunity to begin anew with a clean slate."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee, however, that the federal government remains dependent on the oil industry for expertise and resources, and said there's little the government can do to resolve an oil spill 5,000 feet below the sea.

She acknowledged that the role of the MMS is critical to understanding how a calamity such as the Gulf oil spill could occur.

"I think that's one of the reasons why the president has been so very clear that further deepwater drilling permits are going to be stopped until this can be investigated and assurances can be gained that things have been changed so that we don't have a duplication of the Deepwater Horizon incident," Napolitano told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. "We're all working together to say, 'All right, what happened here? What power should MMS have had that it didn't have? What powers did it have that it didn't exercise?"

MMS officials had been asked to testify at the hearing — the fourth in the past week — but declined. On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, to whom the MMS reports, is scheduled to appear.

At a briefing in Louisiana, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said company engineers were diverting about 1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) of oil, natural gas and water from one of two leaks through a 4-inch pipe that was inserted into a larger broken pipe over the weekend.

He said they plan slowly to "open up the choke" in hopes of increasing that to about 2,000 barrels a day. However, he said he didn't know how much of the 1,000 barrels was oil and how much was water.

BP continues to estimate the spill at 5,000 barrels of crude a day, although independent experts have estimated that the well may be leaking as much as 70,000 barrels a day.

Government scientists have offered no confirmation of higher estimates, and the head of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Monday was critical of them and of published reports that large plumes of oil had been detected below the Gulf's surface.

In a statement, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco called those reports "misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate."

She said that research on what's taking place below the Gulf's surface is incomplete and hasn't proven that there are large plumes of oil, that dispersants would be causing such plumes or that oxygen levels have dropped low enough to threaten marine life.

Government officials Monday also disputed whether the oil had reached the Gulf's powerful loop current, which could carry it up the Atlantic Coast.

"We know that the oil has not entered the loop current at this time," said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, briefing reporters. "There might be some leading edge sheen that's getting closer to the loop current, but this spill has not entered the loop current."

The dean of University of South Florida College of Marine Science, William Hogarth, reported, however, that computer modeling, wind forecasts, and satellite images showed otherwise.

Landry acknowledged concerns about the unprecedented use of dispersants in deep water, which some environmentalists say could be harmful to marine life and humans. However, she defended their use, which the Environmental Protection Agency approved.

"That threshold we crossed was not done lightly," Landry said. "It was done in cooperation with all the federal agencies. . . . It does allow us to use less by volume than using it on the surface. . . . It's all a series of tradeoffs. We are really trying to minimize the environmental impact of all these methods being done."

Suttles, who flew over the site of the spill Monday with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, said that BP's next step would be a so-called "top kill," which involves pumping as much as 50,000 barrels of heavy, mud-like liquid into the oil well at a high speed. The velocity and weight of those fluids would overcome the pressure from the well, Suttles said, and engineers would follow the mud with cement to plug the well. Suttles said the "top kill" could come this weekend or sooner.

"There is absolutely no intent to ever, ever produce this well," Suttles said. "We would pump cement into it and close it."

Meanwhile, BP announced that it was giving $75 million to Gulf states for tourism marketing while the White House released a letter from BP in which BP said it would not limit its payments for claims to $75 million allowed by current law.

On Friday, Salazar and Napolitano wrote to BP chief executive Tony Hayward, saying BP is accountable for the "full clean up" of the spill and all related economic losses.

In a response dated Sunday, Hayward said, "We are prepared to pay above $75 million on these claims," meaning claims under the Oil Pollution Act. The letter said BP would follow Coast Guard standards under the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and would honor claims by individuals and businesses that can substantiate them.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that administration lawyers are "evaluating the response to their letter from a legal perspective" while seeking legislation to lift the economic damages cap retroactively.

(Bolstad reported from Washington; Pender of the Biloxi Sun Herald from Biloxi, Miss.; and Chang of the Miami Herald from Miami. Marisa Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.)

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