Interior chief says department shares responsibility for cleanup

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a Senate panel on Tuesday that the department's Minerals Management Service shares the responsibility for not ensuring the safety of a BP-run deepwater drilling rig that has caused the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

In his first testimony since the April 20 explosion of the BP-run Deepwater Horizon rig, Salazar told the Energy and Natural Resources Committee there is a "collective responsibility" for responding to the spill that includes fixing problems at MMS.

"We need to clean up that house," Salazar said.

Chris Oynes, who oversees offshore oil and gas drilling at MMS, announced Monday that he will retire at the end of May.

Salazar said he will soon recommend to President Obama "significant enhancement that could be made" to boost federal offshore drilling safety requirements. He said that move includes looking more closely at blowout preventers -- which BP unsuccessfully used as a last defense against a leak when the rig exploded -- as well as the cementing and sealing of deepwater wells.

He also noted efforts to change the culture at MMS.

"There are some bad apples at MMS, and we have taken care of them," Salazar said. "And to the extent that MMS employees were involved in any kind of negligence here or any other kind of failure, they will also be held accountable."

Obama is setting up an independent commission to investigate the spill, akin to those that investigated both the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. "I think there are some lessons to be learned from that," Salazar said, noting the Challenger disaster shut down the space program for more than two years and the Three Mile accident shut down new nuclear power for three decades.

"So how we handle this issue is one of highest importance," Salazar said. "We will find out exactly what happened here."

Salazar last week recommended splitting up MMS to create an independent safety and environmental enforcement entity there.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., cited three "regulatory failures" that preceded the spill, including inadequate federal technical standards regarding the cementing of the well and other areas.

Bingaman also said MMS officials "need to be more fully engaged with industry in reviewing the overall design and implementation" of deepwater wells and better follow-through on how approved spill-response plans are implemented.

Salazar defended the agency's actions since the April 20 accident. Administration officials "have been relentless from day one," including sending Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes to the Gulf "without a change of underwear and without a toothbrush."

But Salazar was grilled over what MMS officials did and did not do before the accident, including not requiring a full environmental review of the BP rig.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said it is "long past time to drain this safety and environmental swamp" at MMS. "This agency has been in denial about safety problems for years," he said.

Salazar said that the lack of relative offshore drilling accidents for years led to lazy oversight. "Did the country as a whole ... become lax? I would say yes," Salazar said.

The Interior Department and White House Council on Environmental Quality last week announced they will review the National Environmental Policy Act procedures at MMS.

Salazar also reiterated that BP "will be held accountable for all costs of the government in responding to the spill and compensation for loss of damages that arise from the spill."

Senate Democrats are looking at a minimum to raise the current $75 million economic liability cap oil companies are required to pay per spill.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said Democrats would talk at their policy lunch on Tuesday about pushing for an unlimited cap.

"We may very well head in that direction," Menendez said.

Menendez made his comments after Republicans objected to a Democratic attempt to unanimously approve a raise of that cap to $10 billion. Republicans also objected to the first attempt by Menendez and other Democrats to do this on the Senate floor last week.

In response to a query at the hearing by Menendez on the appropriate liability cap, Salazar said it "ought to be high enough so that we make sure that the responsible party will be able to live up to whatever consequences."

Later today, Salazar is testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, along with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House CEQ Chairwoman Nancy Sutley.

In related news, BP on Tuesday agreed to a request by Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to turn over all video showing details of the gulf spill.

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