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Gulf oil spill: Tempers flare in Senate

May 18, 2010 |  5:41 pm

On a day when three Capitol Hill hearings were held on the BP oil spill, the level of anger and frustration was rising over the continuing leak and uncertainty over when it will be plugged.

During a hearing held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) aired a May 17 video of the leak obtained from BP.

"See it, there’s the oil," she said, noting that oil was still spewing, even after a mile-long suction tube was inserted into the pipe. "It’s not doing what a lot of us were hoping it would do."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told an earlier hearing that the pipe inserted into the gushing conduit was siphoning off 1,500 to 2,000 barrels, or as much as 40% of BP's estimate of the flow.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) brought a jar of oil rocks recently collected from Alaska's Prince William Sound to show that "the legacy of the Exxon Valdez still lives with us" and the economic and environmental damage from the gulf spill could last for years.

The hearings came amid heightened anxiety over the economic effects of the spill, especially from Florida lawmakers in the wake of reports of tar balls appearing on their coasts. Officials are testing them to see whether they came from the blown-out well some 48 miles southeast of the tip of Louisiana.

"We need to get folks involved in trying to clean up this spill," said Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.). "What this could do to Florida if all of this oil washes along our shores, what it’s going to do to our tourism industry, what it’s going to do to our fishing business, what it’s going to do to recreational boating, what it’s going to do to our environment: It cannot be overestimated."

Sen. John D. "Jay"’ Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, also expressed concern about oil continuing to pour into the gulf. "There will be many more days, many more weeks, many more months -- who knows at this point --  before the devastation can be brought fully to a halt," he said. "Every day the damage grows worse."

Rockefeller said he wanted to know whether companies took shortcuts. "I’m familiar with shortcuts, because I come from West Virginia where there are a lot of coal mines," he said, "and in bad times people take shortcuts -- profits before safety is just the way the world works."

Unlike the scene a week ago, where executives of BP and other companies involved in the drilling engaged in finger pointing, Salazar told the committees that he considered it a "collective responsibility."

Salazar was urged by senators to move swiftly to overhaul his department’s oversight of offshore drilling during his first appearance before Congress since an oil spill started spreading across the Gulf of Mexico. 

"It is long past time to drain this safety and environmental swamp at the Minerals Management Service," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told Salazar, a former Senate Democratic colleague. "This agency has been in denial about safety problems for years." 

Wyden asserted that the Minerals Management Service "accepted the assurances of industry that the chance of these kinds of accidents was too remote to worry about."

"The American people aren't just furious at British Petroleum," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said. "The American people are also furious that the government has allowed this to happen with no real plan in place’’ to respond to a massive spill.

Salazar said that he was moving aggressively to reform the MMS, including seeking changes that have "raised the ire of industry."

"The conclusion that this is an unregulated industry is not correct," he said. "It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement."

But Wyden told him, "There are regulations, but they aren’t adequate.... And my sense is that they aren’t being enforced."

The hearings come as Congress considers legislation aimed at the energy industry, including new environmental and safety rules on offshore drilling and higher liability limits for the industry in the event of spills.

After hearing from executives of BP and other companies last week, Congress has turned its attention to the Minerals Management Service, which has been criticized as being too cozy with industry.

The spill also has intensified a debate in Congress over new offshore drilling. Salazar declined to "put the finger on what went wrong and who was responsible" until the investigation is complete, though he did say, "I think many things obviously went wrong."

Salazar took issue with any assertion that the administration had been slow to respond, noting that his top aide was rushed to the Gulf Coast the day after the April 20 rig explosion "without a change of underwear and without a toothbrush because of the urgency that we brought to this matter."

-- Richard Simon, reporting from Washington