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Gulf oil spill: Former Interior chiefs defend their records on offshore drilling

July 20, 2010 |  3:28 pm
Former President George W. Bush’s interior secretaries defended their record of promoting offshore drilling Tuesday at a hearing before a congressional committee investigating the catastrophic gulf oil spill.

"If regulations on the books and industry best practices had been followed properly, there may not have been a blowout," former Interior Secretary Gale Norton told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She was joined by her successor, Dirk Kempthorne.

President Obama’s Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, is scheduled to testify later Tuesday.

The committee has said that BP made reckless decisions before the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that left 11 people dead and started the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Turning its attention to the actions of federal regulators, the panel's Democratic majority said that an industry-friendly Bush administration failed to act on safety warnings about blowout preventers and rejected proposals to strengthen standards for cementing wells.

"The regulatory house of cards erected over an eight-year period by the Bush-Cheney administration collapsed with the explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) accused the Bush administration of backing off when the oil industry objected to stronger government regulation. Regulations enacted in 2003 did not require a second blind-shear ram on subsea blowout preventers, as some recommended, or address concerns about the reliability of backup shutoff systems, he noted.

Democrats went as far back as nearly a decade ago to talk about the pro-drilling bent of the energy task force headed by then Vice President Dick Cheney, accusing the Bush administration of pursuing a policy of "more drilling first, safety second."

Norton, in written testimony, suggested that drilling rules enacted under her tenure "may have been violated in the days leading up to the accident."

Kempthorne told the committee that he had hoped to avoid the "spectacle" of an earlier hearing where officials of companies involved in the drilling pointed the finger at each other.

But he said that while he was Interior secretary, he was asked by members of Congress -- at a time of rising gas prices -- why the department wasn't doing more to expand energy exploration.

The hearing came as a group of senators prepared to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron in the Capitol on their demand for an investigation into whether BP lobbied for the release of terrorist Abdel Basset Al-Megrahi, convicted in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people, in an effort to gain favor with Libya to drill off its coast.

During the House hearing, Republicans accused Democrats of political gamesmanship. "The majority tries to trace the Deepwater Horizon spill to the Bush administration," said Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Texas).  "But the majority knows all available evidence suggests the disaster resulted from the failure to follow existing regulations and industry best practices, not that George W. Bush refused to require two sets of blind shear rams."

"There's going to be a time when this administration's going to have to accept some responsibility," Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said. "They're going to have to say, 'Yeah, this did happen on our watch.'"

Republicans and some Gulf Coast Democrats took their own shots at the Obama administration for instituting a deepwater drilling moratorium they said was hurting the Gulf Coast economy and making the U.S. more dependent on foreign oil.

"As the people of Louisiana continue to fight the oil each day, President Obama and his administration are taking what is already a human and environmental tragedy and turning it into an economic tragedy by continue to pursue a reckless and harmful moratorium on offshore drilling," Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said.

-- Richard Simon in Washington