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Senators: Blocking deep-water drilling would further hurt gulf economy

By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010; 8:50 PM

The Obama administration's effort to freeze deep-water drilling met criticism from both parties at a Senate hearing Thursday as lawmakers said it would add economic damage to the toll from the gulf oil spill.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said the moratorium would cause "additional unnecessary economic harm to a region that is already suffering." In calling for the drilling halt, the administration is "putting ideology above scientific integrity," Barrasso said.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), whose state is bearing the brunt of the disaster but also relies heavily on the oil and gas industry, said the freeze would cost Louisiana jobs.

"If we don't get this right, we're going to eliminate every job we're trying to create," Landrieu said.

The arguments Thursday reflected the tension between economic and environmental concerns that has long riven the nation's energy policy.

The administration is trying halt deep-water drilling for six months so it can learn from the devastating blowout that is contaminating fisheries, fouling coastline, killing animals and harming businesses that range from seafood to tourism.

But a federal judge sided with the oil industry Tuesday and issued an injunction blocking the moratorium. U.S. District Court Judge Martin L.C. Feldman said the government had failed to justify "the immeasurable effect" on oil companies, the local economy and the availability of domestic energy.

The administration is appealing the decision. Feldman declined on Thursday to put his ruling on hold while that appeal is pending.

Energy Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday that the administration is trying to ensure safety and protect the environment. Some of the wells that companies are planning to drill would go far deeper than the Macondo well that is gushing oil into the gulf, posing even greater technological challenges, he said.

"Right now we don't yet know enough to say it's time to lift the pause button," Salazar told the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Salazar said "recklessness" contributed to the current disaster. He also said his department needs to hire an additional 330 oil and gas rig inspectors, to join the 62 it currently has.

At Thursday's Senate hearing, Republicans also criticized the composition of a commission President Obama has appointed to investigate the spill. Sen. Robert Bennett (Utah) said it lacked technical expertise. Barrasso blasted it as "stacked with people who philosophically oppose" offshore oil exploration.

Salazar said the commission members will be supported by a staff and "transcend partisan politics and ideology."

Also appearing at Thursday's hearing was Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general whom the administration has named to take over and transform the regulatory agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service. The agency has been widely criticized as being too close to industry.

Bromwich said he was "only beginning to understand the agency" that has been renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. He said one of his first steps is creating a "SWAT team" to investigate allegations about agency employees and the companies they regulate.

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