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Gulf oil spill: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says BP, other companies will be held 'fully accountable'

May 18, 2010 |  9:48 am

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar assured a Senate panel Tuesday morning that the Obama administration will hold BP and other companies "fully accountable" for cleanup of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as well as for economic damages to businesses and residents.

Salazar also said he is moving aggressively to improve oversight of offshore drilling.

"The president has been clear: We will not rest until this leak is contained, and we will aggressively pursue compensation for all costs and damages from BP and other responsible parties," Salazar said in prepared testimony to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Salazar’s first appearance before congressional committees investigating the spill comes as lawmakers turn their attention to the record of the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which is charged with enforcing environmental and safety rules for offshore drilling.

"We have been making major changes at MMS, and we will continue to do so," Salazar said. Among those changes are splitting the agency’s responsibility for generating revenues for the Treasury from the leasing of federal lands and waters for energy production from its duties to enforce environmental and safety rules.

Despite Salazar’s assurances that BP will be held accountable -- and the oil company’s pledge to pay economic damages in excess of a statutory $75-million liability cap -- Senate Democrats stepped up efforts Tuesday to raise the cap to $10 billion.

"My worst nightmare is becoming reality," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, noting occupancy is way down at beachfront hotels in the Gulf region. "If I seem emotional," Nelson added, "it’s because my people are scared."

Salazar said that the administration has been working "from day one" to ensure that "BP – and all of [the] industry – is doing everything within its power to effectively and expeditiously address the spill."

He said the administration is fully investigating the causes of the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 people. "We will get to the bottom of this disaster and will hold those responsible accountable," he said.

Although the administration has suspended plans to open new areas in the Atlantic and the Gulf to drilling, Salazar said that coastal drilling remains "necessary." About a third of domestic petroleum production comes from the Gulf.

President Obama excluded the West Coast from plans for new drilling, but Democratic lawmakers from the West Coast have introduced legislation in the House and Senate to reinstitute a statutory ban on new drilling in the Pacific. The decades-old ban expired in late 2008 as lawmakers worried about political fallout from high gasoline prices.

As the administration considers new offshore areas for energy exploration, Salazar said, "we will conduct thorough environmental analysis and scientific study, gather public input and comment, and carefully examine the potential safety and spill risk considerations."

-- Richard Simon in Washington