BP Gulf oil spill: Congress zeroes in on federal oversight

Was the government adequately monitoring the drilling by the Deepwater Horizon? Is the government too cozy with the industry it's regulating? Lawmakers of both parties want answers following the Gulf oil spill.

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    Protestors stood behind Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as he testified Thursday before the House Interior subcommittee hearing on the ongoing response and environmental impacts of the BP oil spill.
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Congress is turning its focus to the federal government’s oversight of the offshore oil industry and Uncle Sam’s response to the BP Gulf oil spill.

Was the government adequately monitoring the drilling by the Deepwater Horizon? Is the government too cozy with the industry it is regulating? And, what new laws need to be passed to give the public confidence in deep water drilling? These are just a few of the questions Congress has asked in the last two days as it held hearings with Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other officials.

During the hearings, Mr. Salazar has tried to tell Congress the Obama administration has a new “arms length” approach to the oil industry. And, on Thursday, the Department of the Interior announced that S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, the director of the embattled Minerals Management Service (MMS) had resigned.

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IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

During the hearings, Obama administration officials have had to listen to many frustrated members of Congress. Representatives from Louisiana want to know why it has taken so long to get federal approval to build berms to try to protect the marshes and beaches. One Congressman, Louie Gohmert (R) from Texas wanted to know why the department had not supplied requested information from eight months ago. And, even Democrats expressed exasperation.

“MMS used to stand for Minerals Management Service,” said Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts. “Now it stands for misconduct, mismanagement and spills.”

The MMS, which is part of the Department of the Interior, took the bulk of the criticism.

Inspector General found ethical lapses

On Tuesday, a report by the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General found ethical lapses involving such gifts free meals and tickets to sporting events. As part of his response to the report, Secretary Salazar asked for an investigation to see if there were lapses by MMS in supervising the Deepwater Horizon, the drill ship BP had leased and which was destroyed on April 20th when a well it was drilling experienced a blow-out.

“Everything I’ve read about this agency is that it contributed to the very crisis we have today,” said Rep. Michael Coffman (R) of Colorado. “It lacks oversight and reason to lead today.”

On Thursday, Salazar told the House appropriations subcommittee for Interior he planned to divide MMS into three parts.

“The Minerals Management Service has three distinct and potentially conflicting missions – safety and enforcement, energy development, and revenue collection – that in order to be most effective should be divided,” he said.

One section would just collect money, which has been averaging about $13 billion a year, mostly in royalty payments or fees for leases.

The second part of MMS would be called Ocean Energy Management, which will be tasked with “sustainable development” of the Outer Continental Shelf. The third part would be the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, in effect the policeman for offshore drilling.

Next month, the House will hold hearings on MMS, and Rep. Jim Costa (D) of California promised Congress would not just rubber stamp the plan.

“We want to ensure you are there in a cooperative fashion,” said Mr. Costa at the House Natural Resources meeting on Wednesday.

'No interest in just shuffling boxes'

“We’re happy to meet,” replied Salazar. “We have no interest in just shuffling boxes around, this is fundamental reorganization and we will do that together.”

However, Congress is also concerned about a prior Inspector General report about sex and drug use at MMS. Salazar said most of the 1,700 people who work at MMS are dedicated public servants. But, he added there were some “bad apples” who would be rooted out.

The hearings have had their partisan moments since Salazar blames the Bush administration for many of the MMS’s shortcomings. Republicans say the problems at the agency have transcended administrations. Rep. Rob Bishop (R) of Utah claiming that during the Clinton administration MMS “cost the government money.”

“The problems are not unique to this administration but they are still there,” he said.

What about Chesapeake Bay?

With the oil soiling the Gulf shores, many congressmen reminded Salazar that they don’t want drilling off their shorelines. For example, Rep. John Sarbanes (D) of Maryland wanted to know if Salazar still intended to go ahead with a lease sale about 50 miles east of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.

Salazar didn’t answer directly but called Chesapeake Bay of “national significance.”

In fact, Salazar said among his options was one to “make adjustments based on lessons learned.” He added, “Stay tuned.”

Congress is going to do that. Rep. Nick Rahall (D) of West Virginia and chairman of the Natural Resources committee has promised seven hearings on the oil spill disaster.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

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