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Salazar: Oil drilling hiatus may be shorter

Interior chief left open the possibility that a six-month moratorium on deep-water oil and gas drilling may not last that long.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday left open the possibility that a six-month moratorium on deep-water oil and gas drilling may not last that long -- a possible laurel to Gulf Coast senators from both parties who are concerned about its effects in their states.

"It's a situation we will access as we move forward, and we will adjust accordingly," Salazar said after testifying for the second time before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee since the April 20 explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig and subsequent massive oil spill.

Salazar said the moratorium is in place to give a bipartisan commission -- led by former Florida Democratic Sen. Bob Graham and former EPA Administrator William Reilly -- time to put together a list of recommendations on offshore drilling safety. "If the commission were to report earlier" than six months, the hiatus "might change," Salazar said.

When Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked whether the moratorium will be lifted at six months, Salazar said, "I don't know today."

His testimony came as Gulf Coast senators have questioned the scientific justification for the ban.

Eight of 15 engineers cited in the appendix of a May 27 report that Salazar gave President Obama offering recommendations for improving offshore drilling safety say administration officials are falsely implying they agree with the report's main recommendation to temporarily halt all offshore drilling for six months.

"There is an implication that we have somehow agreed to or 'peer reviewed' the main recommendation of that report," they wrote Louisiana Sens. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican, and the state's governor, Republican Bobby Jindal. "This is not the case."

The engineers say the report does not justify the scope of the moratorium and that it "will not contribute measurably to increased safety and will have immediate and long-term economic effects." They say an argument could be made that it is "counterproductive to long-term safety."

Salazar said of the engineers, "It was not their decision on the moratoria. It was my decision, the president's decision."

Landrieu told Salazar the potential economic cost of the moratorium "could be devastating to our state and to the Gulf Coast."

"We can pause; we cannot stop," she told CongressDaily afterward. "And the pause cannot be very long. I don't know if there's a magic number, but six months is too long."

She expressed concerns that it could be as long as nine months, given the possible time needed to review the report's recommendations after it is issued.

But she did note that Obama has signaled it may not take the full six months for the commission to finish its work. "I don't think that the administration has dug in," Landrieu said.