Lawmakers Question Salazar On Drilling, Oil Spill

On Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and top officials from the Minerals Management Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told members of the House panel that the Obama administration has been relentless in its response to the blowout.

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And to another hearing on the Gulf spill, this one on Capitol Hill. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told members of a House panel that the Obama administration has been relentless in its response to the blowout. Regarding future oil drilling, Salazar said the administration is trying to move forward with a balanced approach, one that says don't drill everywhere and when you do drill, it must be done in the right places and the right ways.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee was the first of seven this panel alone has scheduled on the explosion. The committee's top Republican, Doc Hastings of Washington, said there was a sense of dissatisfaction among members of both political parties and the public over the continuing gusher in the Gulf.

Representative DOC HASTINGS (Republican, Washington): It has been over a month since oil started leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. Each day that the oil continues to leak is a day where frustration increases. Both BP and the Obama administration have a joint and share a duty to do everything within their power to stop this flow of oil.

NAYLOR: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Obama administration has spared no effort in the Gulf, deploying 20,000 people, thousands of ships and boats and a body of scientists all working to bring this bill under control and get to the bottom of the story, as he put it. But he said the ultimate responsibility for the spill and the cleanup and the costs lies with BP.

Secretary KEN SALAZAR (Interior Department): We have them by the neck and we will keep them by the neck to do everything that has to be done here, which is right.

NAYLOR: Salazar will deliver a report to President Obama tomorrow on whether further precaution should be taken before allowing continued offshore drilling. Environmental groups want the Obama administration to rescind five permits to allow drilling in Alaska. A small group of protestors held up banners that appeared to have been written in oil, calling for the White House to end Arctic drilling. Salazar gave away little about the administration's plans.

Lawmakers also asked about the Minerals Management Service, the government agency that oversees offshore drilling. A report by the inspector general yesterday outlined a series of abuses at the agency's Lake Charles, Louisiana, office, including rig inspectors accepting football game tickets and meals from oil company officials, along with drug use and other ethics violations.

The abuses outlined occurred prior to 2008, but Salazar said some of those implicated remained on the job. Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said further actions were planned.

Deputy Secretary DAVID HAYES (Interior Department): We immediately put all of the individuals identified in that report on administrative leave and have started proceedings to determine whether more disciplinary action is appropriate.

NAYLOR: Salazar noted the abuses occurred during the Bush administration, calling MMS then the candy store of the oil kingdom. Democratic Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts went further. MMS, he said, stands for mismanagement, misconduct and spills.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Some are now shocked at the gambling with our environment that was going on in the oil and gas industries' offshore casino. They fail to see any connection between their own drill, baby, drill boosterism for offshore drilling and the current spill, baby, spill catastrophe we now face.

NAYLOR: Salazar has proposed reorganizing MMS into three separate agencies. Inspector general Mary Kendall, who prepared the report, suggested another reform to end the revolving door between the agency and the industry.

Ms. MARY KENDALL (Inspector General, Interior Department): An inspector, say, who comes from Shell moves to MMS should not be allowed to inspect a Shell platform or rig for at least two years.

NAYLOR: Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a memo outlining warnings that occurred on the Deepwater Horizon rig minutes before the blast on April 20th that killed 11 workers. Based on an interim report from BP, the memo says there are key questions about whether proper procedures were followed for critical activities throughout the day.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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