Ken Salazar's task: make sure BP oil spill isn't Obama's Katrina

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testifies about lapses in oversight of Gulf drilling that led to BP oil spill. But he also says the Obama administration is taking steps to avoid another spill.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testifies Tuesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on issues related to offshore oil and gas exploration, including the accident involving the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today is making his first appearances before Congress since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil blowout disaster. His job is a tough one: be contrite about any US regulatory mistakes related to the oil spill, but not so contrite that he makes the Obama administration appear ineffective.

That is a delicate balance to strike, and in the early going Salazar – a former senator from Colorado – did his best to strike it. He admitted, for instance, that a few “bad apples” in his department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) may have been lax in their oversight of industry, but that most MMS employees are capable public servants. And he appealed to former colleagues for forbearance.

“People can come together here instead of playing the blame game,” he said in an appearance before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “We can make sure it never happens again, and I look forward to working with you on that.”

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill

Obama officials do not want Deepwater Horizon to become their Hurricane Katrina. Following Katrina’s devastation critics hit the Bush administration hard for a perceived slowness in organizing a federal response to the devastation left by the storm.

So the White House has already said that it plans to split up the MMS, which has been criticized for being too close to the industries it regulates. This plan calls for separating the tasks of safety and environmental compliance on the one hand, and promotion of offshore oil drilling on the other.

In addition, the White House has asked Congress for an extra $29 billion to bolster the offshore oil platform regulatory process.

There will also be a Deepwater Horizon commission. President Obama has announced that he will form a presidential panel to investigate the disaster.

Similar commissions probed the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Salazar noted. While they carried out their work, the shuttle program was delayed for over two years, he noted. The domestic nuclear industry has yet to recover from the Three Mile Island aftermath.

“So how we handle this issue is of the highest importance,” the Interior Secretary told Senators.

Salazar also denied reports that his agency had approved some deep water oil drilling applications since April 20. All such actions had been suspended, he said.

“We have hit the pause button,” Salazar said.

He admitted, however, that drilling continues at deep water rigs which had been at work in the Gulf prior to the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Not all lawmakers were convinced that the White House response has been adequate.

“This is an opportunity for you to drain the environmental and safety swamp that is MMS,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon.

And Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Energy panel, said that in his opinion regulatory failure was one of the three interlocking pieces that had helped cause the disaster, with the other two being the failure of equipment, and the failure of people running the drilling system.

IN PICTURES: Louisiana oil spill


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