Lawmakers trade partisan barbs over regulation of offshore drilling

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; 12:18 PM

House lawmakers exchanged partisan barbs Tuesday as they looked back on how the current and former administrations have regulated offshore drilling over the past decade.

Members of an energy panel bickered over whether Republicans or Democrats deserved more of the blame for failing to ensure safe drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Deepwater Horizon explosion took place April 20.

"There has been a pervasive failure by the regulators to take the actions necessary to protect safety and the environment," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. "These failures happened at the same time as federal officials offered oil and gas companies new incentives to drill in deeper and riskier waters in the Gulf of Mexico."

Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne, who served as successive interior secretaries under George W. Bush, sat quietly as more than a dozen committee members delivered opening statements. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is slated to testify later Tuesday.

Democrats cited several key decisions made by the Bush administration to loosen federal rules for oil and gas companies as contributing to the BP oil spill. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) pointed to a report by the energy task force chaired by then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney that directed Interior to "consider economic incentives for environmentally sound offshore oil and gas development."

"With the Cheney task force report, the first condition for this disaster, rewriting the offshore drilling policies to prioritize speed, rather than safety, was set in motion," Markey said.

But Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) said the panel should spend at least as much time scrutinizing the Obama administration's approval of BP's Macondo well and its handling of the explosion's aftermath.

"We want to understand why the department has allowed BP to do what it did," Barton said. He added that when it comes to the current spill, Norton and Kempthorne are no longer in charge. "The decisions that are being made, and the non-decisions are not being made, by these two individuals, they're being made by Secretary Salazar and President Obama."

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the full committee, said the actions of both current and past administrations contributed to the disaster.

"We will learn that the Department of Interior under both President Bush and President Obama made serious mistakes," Waxman said. "The cop on the beat was off duty for nearly a decade. And this gave rise to a dangerous culture of permissiveness.'

Monday night, Stupak and Markey's staffs released a 14-page memo that detailed several key federal drilling decisions over the past decade. In addition to the Cheney Energy Task Force's recommendations, it cited decisions by the Minerals Management Service in 2003 to fail to require two blind-shear rams, a critical safety mechanism, in blowout preventers and to exempt all companies leasing in the Gulf of Mexico from providing a blowout scenario in their exploration plans except in rare instances.

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