WASHINGTON (CN) – U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar defended the federal government’s response to the Gulf oil spill in a congressional hearing Wednesday, calling the government’s action “a relentless effort since day one” and labeling it the “single largest response in the history of the United States to an oil spill.”
At a House Natural Resources Committee hearing examining the spill response, Salazar said administration officials heeded President Obama’s call to “spare no effort,” as evidenced by the 20,000 people deployed to the coastline and 1,000 vessels combing the waters in response to the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
But Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., questioned why there were fishermen in the region willing to help but not being utilized and why Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal could not get federal approval to construct a berm that would protect the state’s barrier islands.
Salazar brushed off the criticism, saying he dispatched his second-in-command, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, to the Gulf region within hours of the spill “without even a change of clothes or even a change of underwear.”
Hayes, sounding choked up, said that as someone who responded immediately to the spill and who has been working tirelessly since, it was “disappointing to say the least” to hear lawmakers suggest that the administration did not take the lead role.
Undeterred, Flake asked why the government wasn’t prepared for the BP spill with well-researched response efforts.
“It seems that we don’t learn anything from prior spills,” Flake said, describing new reports of responders “washing off birds with handiwipes or whatever else.”
“This is the largest response of the United States government with respect to an oil spill in history,” Salazar said. “You wouldn’t see this kind of global response if lessons from the past haven’t been learned.”
Salazar also assured the committee that even though the administration was heavily involved in the response, the government would not shoulder financial responsibility. Salazar said BP is responsible for “all response costs, all damages, all clean up costs, all economic damages” related to the incident, “which is their spill,” he emphasized. He said the administration had already received assurances from BP that “they are not going to hide behind the $75 million cap” of damage payouts by law.
“I think we need more,” Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said, calling the current $75 million damages cap a “laughably small number.” Holt said he supported legislation that proposes to raise the cap.
Hayes agreed that there should be no liability cap, but said removing the cap might make sense only for deepwater drilling, the type BP was engaged in at the time of the Deepwater Horizon incident, and other risky activities and might not extend to all activities under the Oil Pollution Act.
Lawmakers expressed frustration that any cap removal will not apply to BP in the current situation in the Gulf.
“We have pushed BP as far as we can,” Salazar said.
“Within the law that we have,” Holt said.
“Within the law that we have,” Salazar affirmed. “I think they will be good for paying the compensation,” he added.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said BP and other oil companies’ assurances that spills are unlikely “aren’t worth spit.”
“Cleanup is a public relations operation,” Miller said angrily. “Once the oil hits water, you lose.”
Miller said cleanup efforts would do little to turn back the environmental damage and asked the administration to call back all leases for review.
Salazar said that aside from holding BP responsible, a major priority for the administration is to break up the “cozy relationship” between the oil and gas industry and federal drilling regulators, namely the Minerals Management Service, the section of the Interior Department responsible for managing offshore energy resources. Salazar said reforming the organization had been a priority since he got into office, but lawmakers disagreed.
“You say you’ve been on the job since day one, but you mean April 20. I don’t think that you’ve been on the job since Jan. 20, 2009 in terms of cleaning up the mess in this department,” Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said.
In response, Salazar cited the development of 36,000 offshore wells without incident and reminded committee members that drilling in the Gulf accounted for 30 percent of domestic oil production. But, he added, “there is no doubt that there needs to be reforms.”
“We have turned the ship,” Salazar said, referring to his recent decision to divvy up the Minerals Management Service into three separate organizations. Salazar said he would remove revenue collectors, which take in an average of $13 billion in royalties from oil and gas leases per year, from the leasing and inspection portions of the agency and then split the remaining organization into two bureaus. One would become the Office of Ocean Energy Management — “the future of this country is dependent on having an agency that can look at that,” Salazar said — and the other would become the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which would perform traditional policing and inspection functions.
Acting Inspector General of the Interior Department Mary Kendall testified after Salazar Wednesday, highlighting the investigative report which revealed “programmatic weaknesses and egregious behavior” at the MMS before the April 20 explosion. Kendall acknowledged the flood of press coverage the MMS has received after the release of the reports, which detailed agency officials accepting gifts for awarding oil leases and drug use at the agency.
“Headlines, however, are not our goal,” Kendall said. She said much of the behavior cited in the report “appears to have drastically declined,” and the department was tightening its ethics rules.
Salazar chalked up the disruptable behavior to a few “bad apples,” but Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., asked if some of the practices were in fact part of the culture at MMS.
Salazar shifted his story. “My opinion is it was part of the culture,” he said. “Industry was running the [Outer Continental] shelf. We have changed that,”
Of the revolving door between government and industry, Kendall said, “That’s a balance that is difficult to strike. You make it too onerous, and government won’t have the expertise it needs; industry will buy them away every time.” She said the restructuring and reform effort at MMS “goes a long way in striking that balance.”
Flake said it was not just criminal behavior at the MMS that was troublesome, “but just normal bureaucratic behavior.” He expressed concern that Gov. Jindal could not get a permit to build a berm to protect the state’s barrier islands from spill damage.
“We are very aware of the request,” Salazar said, adding that the administration had to ensure that response efforts were not “environmentally worse” than other proposed measures.
Salazar said BP’s “top kill” approach, which involves pumping material at the source of the leak in an attempt to stop the flow of oil, was partially in response to the administration’s pressure on the company. He said the administration is holding out “fervent hope” that the “Apollo 13 type of project underway as we speak” will work.