Salazar: MMS has 'turned the ship'

Interior chief says department will have zero tolerance for ethical lapses at Minerals Management Service.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a House panel Wednesday his department will have zero tolerance in dealing with ethical lapses at its Minerals Management Service as it engages in a "relentless" effort to stem the oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico each day.

In the wake of a new Interior inspector general report detailing indiscretions involving Louisiana MMS inspectors between 2005 and 2007, which include receiving gifts from industry officials and using illegal drugs, Salazar told the House Natural Resources Committee that the department has "turned the ship and we have been making progress."

"Those bad apples will be rooted out with every power that we have," he said.

While he noted the IG report details actions under the prior administration, he said the department under his direction might need to take further steps. "We will have a tough hand" in addressing ethical problems, he said. "We came into this department to clean up that mess and to clean up this house."

Salazar has asked the department's acting Inspector General Mary Kendall "to look specifically into conduct of MMS employees that would update the report," he said. "Because I want to know whether or not the ethical mandates and orders ... have been effective."

In her prepared testimony for Wednesday's hearing, Kendall said the findings of the latest report are "arguably less egregious and considerably less salacious" than a report released in 2008 chronicling sex parties, drug use and other indiscretions at an MMS Denver office between 2002 and 2006.

She added that she is more concerned "about the environment in which these inspectors operate, and the ease with which they move between industry and government."

In the first of a planned series of seven hearings on the oil spill in the House panel, Salazar said the administration is engaged in an unprecedented effort to address the growing oil spill.

But panelists in both parties questioned whether there was enough done by the department in this and prior administrations before the spill to prevent or limit its damage.

"We're still shoveling sand on the beach," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., referencing a major spill that occurred off of Santa Barbara in 1969. "It seems we don't learn anything from prior spills," Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said.

Salazar countered that the response to the Gulf spill is the largest effort to address a spill in U.S. history. "You wouldn't see this kind of response now under way in the Gulf if lessons from the past hadn't been learned," he told the panel.

Salazar left the hearing shortly after noon to monitor BP's attempt to stem the leak using a "top kill" method of injecting drilling mud and potentially other items, such as golf balls and pieces of tire, to stem the leak. If that fails, he said, the next option would be to put a cap over the well.

But Flake said the administration was slow to give Louisiana officials an emergency permit for a state plan to dredge and build barrier islands to safeguard marshes and wetlands. It "seems to be a typical federal bureaucrat response," he said.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has also expressed frustration with the delay. But Salazar said the proposal was still under discussion.

"One thing we don't want to do is move forward with something" that would end up harming the environment further, he said.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told the panel that the department will likely submit new recommendations to President Obama Thursday to shore up offshore drilling safety.

While most Republicans questioned whether the administration has done enough to stem the spill, Democrats went after BP and the broader oil and gas industry, including its past claims that there was only minimal risk of a spill.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., suggested there was an incentive for BP to give a low-end estimate of 5,000 barrels leaking a day to avoid higher civil penalties in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Salazar responded by saying there would indeed be a "financial interest" in BP giving a low estimate early on "because liability does apply."