Salazar to seek funding for drilling inspectors

Interior chief says he will request a fivefold increase, noting currently 62 inspectors are responsible for nearly 4,000 drilling activities in the Gulf of Mexico.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar intends to ask Congress in the coming days for more funding to increase more than fivefold the number of inspectors enforcing offshore oil and natural gas drilling rules.

"Without a doubt, the need to have a robust agency that can go out and do the proper level of inspection and enforcement cannot be done with the resource levels that [Minerals Management Service] has today," Salazar told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at a hearing Thursday.

He noted that 62 inspectors are responsible for nearly 4,000 drilling activities in the Gulf of Mexico. "It's extraordinary and woefully inadequate," he said. "We will need an additional 330 [full-time employees] in the area of inspection and enforcement and environmental compliance."

The energy committee's hearing examined legislative proposals addressing the implications of the Gulf oil spill, including ramping up Interior's inspections in the Outer Continental Shelf, overhauling Interior's ethics policy and improving drilling technology.

The department's request will come as an amendment to its fiscal 2011 budget, which in February originally asked for only six more inspectors for MMS. The agency no longer exists as a single entity but has been split into three distinct agencies, the Bureaus of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Salazar said after testifying in the hearing that he is having his staff -- including Michael Bromwich, recently appointed by President Obama and Salazar to lead the reform efforts -- "dig down to make sure that when we make the request for additional inspectors and enforcement personnel that we have the right number in place." He left the door open to requesting more than increased personnel.

In a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, the subpanel chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., warned Salazar that the window to submit additional requests is small. She noted that Democratic leadership has told senators to mark up legislation.

"So if you're going to submit something in addition to six inspectors you've submitted, we're going to work in a very strict cap," Feinstein told Salazar. "So if you can get that into us quickly, that'd be appreciated."

At Thursday 's hearing, Salazar faced more questions on the administration's six-month moratorium, which a federal judge overruled this week. He reiterated what he said in Wednesday's hearing that the administration stands firm in its belief a moratorium needs to be in place, and he intends to implement another ban that includes new criteria justifying it. The Associated Press reported Thursday that for now, the department is complying with the judge's ruling and not enforcing the original moratorium.

The hearing Thursday provided a forum for several senators, including Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Sens. Scott Brown, R-Mass., Mark Udall, D-Colo., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., to discuss their respective pieces of legislation addressing the Gulf disaster.

Bingaman's bill, which is co-sponsored by the panel's top Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., aims to update environmental, safety and oversight standards for offshore drilling projects.

Menendez's bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., seeks to end what he called Thursday at the hearing a "revolving door" between the oil industry and the former MMS. It includes various measures limiting or prohibiting regulators' relationship with the oil companies they work with.

Udall's legislation would restructure an Energy Department program that focuses on increasing oil production to instead focus on safety and accident prevention.

Brown's bill, co-sponsored by Feinstein, would require stricter reviews of companies' oil spill response plans.

Bingaman said after the hearing that he hopes to mark up these bills next week and cobble together an overall oil-spill package to report out of his committee.

Meanwhile, across the Capitol, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., released a draft plan to put his stamp on growing efforts to firm up safety and oversight of offshore drilling in response to the growing Gulf oil spill.

The West Virginia Democrat's discussion draft updates a plan he first introduced in September to change federal energy resources law, in part by codifying the Obama administration's effort to break up the Minerals Management Service into three bureaus and separate federal safety and environmental enforcement from project approval and revenue collection on offshore oil and gas drilling. But Rahall's plan goes further by including onshore drilling. His panel will hold a hearing on his draft June 30.