Congressional Panels To Demand More Info From BP
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
President Obama has already publicly chastised BP and the other companies involved in the spill for pointing fingers at each other, when they appeared before congressional committees. This week, at least a half-dozen more hearings are scheduled and they're likely to have one thing in common: a demand for more information.
NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Congressman Ed Markey heads the House committee on energy independence and global warming. Right now, he is focused and angry. Focused because...
Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): It is the biggest environmental disaster in history.
SEABROOK: And angry, says Markey, because British Petroleum is treating this spill like some kind of giant PR problem.
Rep. MARKEY: This is not just damage to BP, this is damage to the American people. We have to make sure that BP gives us all of the information we need right now.
SEABROOK: Markey says BP has been less than forthcoming, not just about this accident but about other rigs it runs as well. Earlier this year, Markey, Arizona's Raul Grijalva and more than a dozen other members of Congress wrote to the government agency that's supposed to regulate oil drilling, the Minerals Management Service, or MMS.
In the letter, the lawmakers described whistleblower reports of huge safety lapses in BP's operations in the Gulf and demanded that they be investigated. The date on that letter: February 24th, some two months before the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, killing 11 workers.
Grijalva is on the natural resources committee and he says it's clear what its priority should be.
Representative RAUL GRIJALVA (Democrat, Arizona): A thorough, thorough reform and cleanup of the Minerals Management Service. I think that's our essential role right now.
SEABROOK: And there's an even bigger goal here, says Grijalva.
Rep. GRIJALVA: This is an opportunity where Congress can reassert itself and get out from under the thumb of the industry that has essentially been, not only writing the regulations, but deciding which ones get enforced and which ones don't.
SEABROOK: Between now and Wednesday, six different committees will hold hearings on the oil spill. Witnesses include the secretaries of Homeland Security and the Department of the Interior, military and civilian officials working on the cleanup attempts and top executives of BP and Transocean, Limited, the owner of the rig.
Even Republicans who are close to the oil industry want answers to come faster. From an airport yesterday, Texas Republican Joe Barton said that again he's wary that this will become a witch hunt.
Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): You know, this should serve as a wakeup call that maybe the industry and the regulators were getting complacent, that this is not a curtain call, that it should be all over.
SEABROOK: Barton is the top Republican on the House energy and commerce committee. He says remember, both chambers are controlled by Democrats, so watch for some of these congressional hearings to take on a political spin.
Rep. BARTON: It's my opinion that the group that was opposed to our continental shelf drilling before, or maybe drilling generically before, wants to use this an excuse to reopen that debate and to push forward that agenda.
SEABROOK: Democrat Ed Markey says he has a model for his investigation: President Carter's commission on the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, the one that set all future safety standards for nuclear power plants. Now, lawmakers have to figure out what happened in the Gulf and how to enforce a stronger safety regime on the oil industry, especially, says Markey, as technology allows it to drill in deeper and deeper waters.
Rep. MARKEY: What we've learned is that BP nickel and dimed safety while promising that accidents would not happen, and if they did, they would be very small.
SEABROOK: Markey says it would be like an auto company spending billions to make a car that could go 200 miles an hour but investing a fraction of that in upgrading the brakes and the airbags.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.