WASHINGTON — The Bush administration focused from its earliest days on ramping up domestic oil and gas production, charged House Democrats, but at the same time allowed the industry a "dangerous culture of permissiveness" that culminated in the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.
The House panel interrogated former Interior Department secretaries who implemented the 2001 recommendations of former Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, which in turn resulted in an executive order requiring federal agencies to expedite offshore drilling and other domestic energy production.
Dirk Kempthorne, his predecessor Gale Norton, as well as the current Interior Secretary in the Obama administration, Ken Salazar, were all called before the House Energy and Commerce committee Tuesday about their oversight of the regulatory agency that oversaw offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service.
The committee, which has been investigating the cause of the explosion, also is examining potential regulatory lapses that could have increased the likelihood of the massive blowout that killed 11 people, and that until this week, was pumping an estimated 60,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico.
"There has been a pervasive failure by the regulators to take the actions necessary to protect safety and the environment," said Rep Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the chairman of the committee's oversight and investigative subcommittee. "These failures to regulate happened at the same time as federal officials offered oil and gas companies new incentives to drill in deeper and riskier waters in the Gulf of Mexico."
Norton, he said, gave in to the oil and gas industry when it objected to proposals to strengthen government regulations. Reports prepared for MMS in 2001, 2002 and 2003 recommended two blind-shear rams on blowout preventers and questioned the reliability of their backup systems, Stupak said. But the regulations finalized in 2003, during her tenure, didn't require a second blind-shear ram backup system on blowout preventers or even testing of backup systems.
As recently as three months ago, the regulatory and response structure of government was based on decades of success in the Gulf of Mexico, Norton said. Plans under both Republican and Democratic administrations were adopted against that backdrop of safety, she said.
But the decisions the Interior Department made when she was in charge sent a clear message to the industry, said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee: "The priority was more drilling first, and safety second."
Democrats noted that Norton left to work as general counsel for Shell Oil amid the scandals in the Interior Department over the influence of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Last year, the Justice Department began investigating her role in a Shell lease; on Tuesday she referred questions about the status of the investigation to her lawyer.
But while Democrats focused on the Bush administration failures, they also were critical of the current administration's approach to energy and offshore drilling — as were Republicans.
The top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said the Obama administration was just as complicit as the previous administration.
Salazar had overseen some reforms, Waxman said. But he had done little to change drill permit procedures at the Minerals Management Service, the agency that's recently been restructured and renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
"There is little evidence that these reforms change the laissez-faire approach (at) MMS in regulating the BP well," Waxman said. The blowout, he said, "was a wake-up call for this administration and for Congress."
Barton urged his colleagues to focus on the decisions made under the current Interior secretary, not the two past ones testifying Tuesday morning. Although the Interior Department sold BP the lease during the Bush administration, the Obama administration signed off on the company's drilling plan, including the environmental impacts.
"We want to understand why the department allowed BP to do what it did," Barton said. "Americans want to understand what the Obama administration's response to the oil spill was and is."
He and other Republicans also used the hearing to continue to call for the White House to end the deepwater drilling moratorium that many — on both sides of the aisle — fear will be devastating to the Gulf Coast's economy.
Salazar said that he believes it's "imprudent and irresponsible" to lift the moratorium until they are assured of the safety of deepwater drilling practices, the ability of companies to contain oil in the event of a blowout, and the adequacy of their oil spill response plans.
"We are not out of the woods, even though this well has been temporarily shut in, because until we get to the ultimate kill of the well, the situation is still a very dangerous one," Salazar said.
Kempthorne, Interior secretary from 2006 through January 2009, said that no one conceived of an oil spill of the magnitude of the one in the Gulf during his tenure.
It wasn't raised at his confirmation hearing or when the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act was considered in 2006, Kempthorne said. Instead, when gas prices were hovering around $4 a barrel, he said he was asked pointedly why his agency wasn't "doing more to expand offshore energy development, not less."
Both Norton and Kempthorne said they were reluctant to criticize their successor, but acknowledged they didn't agree with the moratorium.
"A moratorium will compound the devastation by the economic devastation that will continue by the loss of jobs," Kempthorne said. "And the Gulf Coast region needs an opportunity to recover, and not have further devastation."
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