WASHINGTON (CN) – The six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling off U.S. coasts, imposed by President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in the wake of the nation’s largest oil spill, was merely a decision to “press the pause button,” not a permanent suspension of drilling activities, Salazar said in a congressional hearing Wednesday.
“It’s not the stop button, it’s the pause button,” Salazar said, testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Salazar said the moratorium will not be lifted until Obama receives a report in six months from the president-appointed commission on the causes of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion and new recommendations for government regulations on the offshore drilling industry.
“It was our view that we needed to get to the bottom before moving forward with deepwater exploration,” Salazar said.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., spoke out strongly against the moratorium, warning that even if it lasted only a few months, it would “wreak economic havoc on this region that exceeds the economic havoc of the spill itself.”
“This could be devastating to our state, and to the Gulf coast,” she said. She said it could affect 330,000 people in Louisiana alone, or 13.4 percent of the state’s workforce. She said that for each of the 100 to 200 workers on each of the 33 deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf, there were four to five other jobs supporting the rig worker.
“If oil service companies have to go out of business, are you going to ask BP to take up those salaries and make them whole?” Landrieu asked Salazar.
“Yes we will,” Salazar said. “BP is responsible.”
When asked outside the hearing room if she believed Salazar, Landrieu said she thinks he means it, but she doesn’t know if it will actually play out that way.
“The irony is that it’s not oil companies that will be being most affected,” Landrieu said.
Back in the hearing room, Salazar said, “We have hit the pause button until we can have a sense of safety that this is never going to happen again.”
“We want to see much more than a pause button,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. Menendez said BP’s oil spill response plan for Deepwater Horizon erroneously included seals, sea otters and other animals.
“Last time I looked, we didn’t have those animals in the Gulf,” he said. “Obviously, they didn’t really have a plan.”
“BP did have an oil spill response plan,” Salazar replied. “The fact is that that plan has not been effective in protecting the sensitive ecology of the Gulf.”
A woman in the audience agreed with Salazar’s view that the Gulf was unprotected and stood up to illustrate her point dramatically. “Excuse me,” she said loudly during Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s opening statement. “I’m a commercial fisherman from the Gulf and we are tired of being dumped on,” she said she doused herself with a large jar of oil or a look-alike substance, letting the liquid run onto her clothes.
Murkowski, appearing unphased, coolly asked for the demonstrator to be escorted out. She was led out, trailed by photographers.
A statement pressed with oily, sticky fingerprints that was handed to reporters after she left identified the woman as Diane Wilson, a fourth generation shrimper from the Gulf and one of the founders of the anti-war group CodePink.
The hearing continued, with Salazar working to assuage senators that the government was trying to ensure the safety of offshore drilling while protecting jobs.
“Production continues in the Gulf of Mexico,” Salazar said. “There has been very little interruption on production because of Deepwater Horizon,” he said, addressing Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso’s concerns that job losses and project delays would cause the Gulf region to “suffer a second hit.” Salazar also noted that the administration had not placed a stop to shallow-water drilling.
When asked if the deepwater drilling moratorium could be lifted before the six-month deadline, Salazar said, “There’s a possibility that we can look at it before then,” but added, “It would be unwise for us to move forward with deepwater drilling before we have those recommendations in front of us.”
“Has BP at any point refused to do what the government has asked them to do?” Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., asked the Interior Secretary.
Salazar was quiet for a minute.
“Yeah we have had a directive relationship with them,” Salazar said. “They have not refused anything that I’ve ordered them to do.” He said he “pushed them to give the statement that they gave the American people that they will not hide behind liability caps” and “characterized the relationship as ‘stepping on the neck of BP.'”
“I told BP at the beginning that that was what the relationship was going to be,” Salazar said.
He also promised that the government would have an actual number on the amount of oil gushing out of the wellhead soon, deferring discussion of the flow rate to Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, who Salazar said “has been working on the issue all night.”
“We want that new flow rate and we will have it very soon,” Hayes said. A team of seven independent scientists are working to nail down the number, he said, an operation that has been made difficult by subsea conditions and an unknown ratio of oil to gas in the material gushing from the broken wellhead.
Now that material from the wellhead is being funneled to the surface for processing, scientists can get a better idea of the oil to gas ratio and formulate a more exact number, Hayes said.
Earlier estimates that the wellhead could release as much as 20 percent more oil after the riser was cut Friday “may have been substantially less,” Hayes said. “But we are going to find out very soon.”