Interior Secretary Acknowledges Lax Oil Regulation

Oil executives connected to the Gulf of Mexico blowout sat in the hot seat before congressional committees last week. Now top government officials get a turn before the panels. Much of that task fell on Tuesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department oversees oil drilling.

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Last week, oil executives were in the hot seat as congressional committees held hearings on the blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. This week, top government officials are facing questions. Yesterday, that task fell to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department oversees oil drilling. NPR's David Welna has our report.

DAVID WELNA: At the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Interior Secretary Salazar seemed unbowed four weeks into the Gulf oil gusher. He still wasn't sure how much oil the blowout well there was leaking. But he did say BP - which holds the well's lease - and other experts intended to stop that flow this weekend.

Secretary KEN SALAZAR (Department of Interior): They have now come to a conclusion that the best way forward, given the diagnostics that have been done, is to move forward with dynamic kill of the well. The so-called dynamic kill of the well is essentially killing the well through the insertion of mud.

WELNA: A permanent sealing of the well, Salazar said, would be done by drilling two relief wells that won't be finished until August. Salazar exuded far more confidence than EPA administrator Lisa Jackson did when she appeared with him before the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (EPA Administrator): The one thing I have taken away so far is that the ability to get this oil out of the ground has far surpassed our ability to respond to the worse case scenario.

WELNA: Jackson added she was amazed how little science there is on underwater oil disbursements. The EPA, nonetheless, authorized their use late last week to try to break up and degrade the leaking oil.

It's leaking because so-called blowout preventers installed at the well head didn't work. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden pressed Salazar on how much Minerals Management Services - the agency inside his department that regulates oil drilling - had to do with that failure.

Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): Do you believe that Minerals Management has adequately regulated blowout preventers?

Sec. SALAZAR: No. The answer is no. I don't - I think that there is additional work that should have been done with respect to blowout prevention mechanisms.

WELNA: Meanwhile, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen told the Commerce Committee it's the Private American Petroleum Institute, not the MMS, that actually issues the licenses for blowout preventers, which have no government regulation. Salazar, for his part, spoke of a collective responsibility for the Gulf blowout.

Sec. SALAZAR: That responsibility, I will say, starts first with the Department of Interior and the Minerals Management Service. We need to clean up that house.

WELNA: That wasn't good enough for Wyoming Republican John Barrasso.

Senator JOHN BARRASSO (Republican, Wyoming): It doesn't seem that anybody checked beforehand whether any of these things would actually work. So the American people aren't just furious at British Petroleum. The American people are also furious that the government has allowed this to happen with no real plan in place.

WELNA: Salazar sharply disagreed.

Sec. SALAZAR: The president and my colleagues on this Cabinet have been relentless from day one. Deputy Secretary David Hayes was sent the day after the explosion to New Orleans, Louisiana without a change of underwear and without a toothbrush because of the urgency that we brought to this matter.

WELNA: As for the future of oil drilling in the Gulf, Salazar told Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders 30 percent of the oil produced in the U.S. comes from there.

Sec. SALAZAR: That is where we know there are huge energy, oil and natural gas resources. You are not going to turn off the lights of this country or the economy by shutting it all down. And so it's important for us...

Senator BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): Now, no one is talking about shutting it all down. We're talking about reinstating the moratorium that had been going on, existing for many, many years.

WELNA: Salazar would only say the Obama administration has hit the pause button on further offshore drilling.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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