Safety record ‘lulled’ US regulators
Ex-Interior chiefs testify in Congress
WASHINGTON — Two former Interior secretaries told Congress yesterday they did not anticipate an accident as large as the
But Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne say no one else did either — including members of Congress who are now blaming the Bush administration for failing to prevent the tragedy.
Kempthorne, who served as Interior secretary from 2006 to January 2009, while George W. Bush was president, said he did not recall being asked at his confirmation hearing or in later congressional testimony about major oil spills.
In fact, Kempthorne said, the opposite occurred. In testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he recalled being pointedly asked why Interior was not doing more to expand offshore energy development, not less. Those concerns were driven by $4 per gallon gas prices, Kempthorne said.
Norton, who served from 2001 to 2006, also under Bush, said the industry had a remarkable safety record, including during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 men, “there was a 40-year record of environmental protection in offshore drilling,’’ Kempthorne said. Since the 1969 oil spill near Santa Barbara, Calif., natural cracks in the sea floor had caused oil seeps larger than oil spilled due to offshore drilling, he said.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who took office in January 2009, acknowledged that long safety record and said he and other members of the Obama administration “were lulled into a sense of safety’’ that proved to be false.
“Prior administrations and this administration have not done as much as we could have done relative to making sure that there was safer production in the Outer Continental Shelf,’’ Salazar said, referring to coastal areas where offshore drilling occurs.
Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of the Energy and Commerce panel, said the Interior Department made serious mistakes under both President Bush and President Obama.
“The cop on the beat was off-duty for nearly a decade. And this gave rise to a culture of permissiveness,’’ Waxman said.
Representative Edward Markey, Democrat of Malden, said a 2001 report from an energy task force created by Vice President Dick Cheney warned that regulations were delaying drilling projects. The report prompted the Bush administration to waive a requirement that companies plan for the type of blowout that occurred at the BP well, Markey said.
“The conditions that created the BP disaster in the gulf were put in motion many years ago,’’ Markey said.
In implementing Bush’s goal to expedite production, Norton failed to resolve questions about the adequacy of blowout preventers to contain spills, investigators said in a memorandum to the committee. The blowout preventer at BP’s well failed to shut off the flow of oil after the explosion.
Material from Bloomberg News was used in this report.