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May 18, 2010 11:58 AM by Melissa Canone

Overhaul Of Agency That Regulates Offshore Drilling

WASHINGTON (AP) - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar conceded
Tuesday that the government failed to hold the oil industry
accountable and ensure safety in offshore oil drilling.
Salazar, in his first appearance before Congress since the April
20 Gulf accident, promised an overhaul of the agency that regulates
offshore oil drilling to give it "more tools, more resources, more
independence and greater authority."
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., in opening a hearing into the spill,
said Congress will examine "the role of regulatory failure" in
the accident at the BP PLC oil rig that unleashed millions of
gallons of oil into Gulf waters.
While the cause of the accident and spill has yet to be
pinpointed, information uncovered so far raises the question of
where the Minerals Management Service was in regulating the
drilling process, said Bingaman.
Bingaman said he hopes to determine "the cascade of failures
that caused the catastrophic blowout."
Salazar, for his part, promised an overhaul of federal
regulations despite industry reluctance to accept some of the
changes.
"We have not and we will not back down on our reform agenda,"
he told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Salazar said the administration "will not rest until we get
this situation under control."
He and other federal officials were expected to come under
questioning for what the government did - or did not do - to
prevent the oil spill, and how they have responded since oil
started streaming into the Gulf last month.
Salazar, who oversees the federal agency that monitors offshore
drilling, was testifying before two Senate committees.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and
Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen will testify at separate
hearings, and oil company executives are back for a second round of
questions.
The hearings come amid the first high-level resignation related
to the oil spill and a decision by President Barack Obama to name a
presidential commission to investigate the cause of the rig
explosion that unleashed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf
of Mexico, where engineers are struggling after three weeks to stop
the flow.
The presidential panel will be similar to ones that examined the
Challenger space shuttle disaster and the Three Mile Island nuclear
power plant accident, said a White House official, speaking on
condition of anonymity because the decision had not been formally
announced.
The commission would be one of nearly a dozen investigations and
reviews launched since the April 20 explosion, although it probably
would be the most comprehensive.
With BP PLC, the company that owns the well, finally gaining
some control over the amount of oil spewing into the gulf,
scientists are increasingly worried that huge plumes of crude
already spilled could get caught in a current that would carry the
mess all the way to the Florida Keys and beyond, damaging coral
reefs and killing wildlife.
Researchers at the University of South Florida said Tuesday that
oil from the spill has entered or is near the so-called loop
current, and could reach Key West by Sunday.
The U.S. Coast Guard reported that 20 tar balls were found off
Key West on Monday, but said a lab analysis would have to determine
their origin. The Florida Park Service during a shoreline survey
found balls that were about 3 to 8 inches in diameter.
Last week, Obama decried what he called a badly failed offshore
drilling system and said failures extended to the federal
government and its "cozy" relationship with oil companies. The
Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that oversees
offshore drilling, has long been criticized for being too close to
industry.
On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said
government failures "certainly" include the Obama administration,
which took office in January 2009.
"But my guess is you guys did some stories in the previous
decade on what was going on at MMS, which is what caused Secretary
Salazar, when he came in, to begin reforming that," Gibbs told
reporters.
Salazar, anticipating tough questioning on Capitol Hill,
announced Monday he is tightening requirements for onshore oil and
gas drilling. The new measures would not apply to oil rigs at sea,
and Salazar had outlined the broad outlines of the reforms in
January.
Even so, he tried to portray them as more evidence of the Obama
administration's aggressive response to the Gulf spill.
"The BP oil spill is a stark reminder of how we must continue
to push ahead with the reforms we have been working on and which we
know are needed," Salazar said in a statement.
Chris Oynes, associate administrator of the minerals agency,
became the first administration official to resign in the wake of
the oil spill. Oynes, who was regional director in charge of Gulf
offshore oil programs for 13 years before being promoted in 2007 to
head all offshore drilling programs, informed colleagues he will
retire at the end of the month, according to an e-mail obtained by
The Associated Press.
Oynes, like other MMS officials, has come under criticism for
being too close to the industry.
A 35-year government employee, Oynes had earlier indicated his
plans to retire but decided to accelerate his departure, said an
administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because
the issue involved a personnel matter. It was unclear what
pressure, if any, was put on him.
Members of Congress, meanwhile, were continuing to focus
attention on the Gulf spill.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and seven other senators asked the
Justice Department to determine whether BP made false and
misleading claims to the government about its ability to prevent a
serious oil spill when it applied for permission last year to drill
the Deepwater Horizon well that has unleashed environmental havoc
along the Gulf coast.
Boxer, who chairs the environment panel, said BP claimed to have
the capability to prevent a serious oil spill in case of a well
blowout.
"In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill ... it does not
in any way appear there was 'proven equipment and technology' to
respond to the spill" as BP claimed, she and the other senators
wrote Attorney General Eric Holder. They asked the Justice
Department to determine whether any criminal or civil laws may have
been violated as far as misleading the government.
In the month since the oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers, BP
has struggled to stop the leak, trying in vain to activate
emergency valves and lowering a 100-ton box that got clogged with
icy crystals. Over the weekend, the oil company finally succeeded
in using a stopper-and-tube combination to divert some of the
gushing oil into a tanker, but millions of gallons are already in
the Gulf.
BP said Tuesday the tube is now drawing 2,000 barrels a day for
collection in a tanker ship on the surface, double the amount when
it started operation. BP plans to keep slowly increasing the amount
of oil captured by the pipe.

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