Lawmakers assail Minerals Management Service

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Perry Bacon Jr., David A. Fahrenthold and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; 4:16 PM

Members of Congress from both parties sharply criticized the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service on Wednesday, a day after the release of a report showing that the agency's inspectors routinely took gifts such as college football tickets from the companies they were supposed to be policing.

Lawmakers unloaded about their concerns during a hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The hearing followed the release of a memorandum by another panel, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, that described an internal BP investigation into the Gulf oil spill. The internal probe points to a series of equipment failures, mistakes and missed warning signs that led to the blowout and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, according to lawmakers briefed by the company.

BP's investigation, while incomplete, highlights a series of abnormal indicators -- about pipeline pressure and the flow of drilling fluids in the five hours before the explosion -- that should have been "warning signs" of trouble, according to the memo summarizing BP's report. In one case, BP's investigator told lawmakers that a "fundamental mistake may have been made despite" an indicator of a very large abnormality.

Among other issues, BP said it had concerns about the cementing job in the well, saying that one procedure had to be attempted nine times, which might have indicated "contamination of the cement."

"The BP investigation has also raised concerns about the maintenance history, modification, inspection, and testing of" the blowout preventer, lawmakers said.

"In addition, key questions exist about whether proper procedures were followed for critical activities throughout the day," the memorandum said. These mostly had to do with the management of drilling mud, which is used as a counterweight to oil and gas pressure pushing up from below.

On Capitol Hill, top Interior Department officials said Wednesday the Obama administration would hold federal agencies, as well as BP, accountable for any failings related to the devastating spill.

In the first of a series of oversight hearings by the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over offshore oil and gas drilling, lawmakers grilled Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on reports of misconduct at the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the Interior Department agency that regulates offshore drilling while also collecting revenue from it.

"This is a BP mess," Salazar said in response to questioning. But while it is important to get "the whole truth" from BP about what went wrong, he said, he has also ordered the department's inspector general to look into what the MMS did or did not do that contributed to the problem.

"Everyone needs to be held accountable, and that includes the federal government," Salazar said.

"It is time to abolish MMS and start anew with a new agency and new people," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in a letter Wednesday to Salazar.

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