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Kempthorne, Norton tell Congress major oil spill in Gulf beyond what anyone expected

Gale Norton “sent a clear message: the priority was more drilling first, safety second,” Waxman said.

Associated Press

Published July 20, 2010


Two former Interior secretaries told Congress Tuesday they did not anticipate an accident as large as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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 wasn’t 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.

In the wake of the Gulf oil spill — which has dumped as much as 184 million gallons of oil into the sea — Salazar has imposed a six-month ban on deepwater drilling.

The moratorium, in effect through Nov. 30, could be modified or lifted in specific cases if drillers can answer questions about drilling safety, oil containment and adequacy of response in case of an oil spill, Salazar said.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the Energy and Commerce panel, said the Interior Department made serious mistakes under both President Bush and President Barack Obama.

“The cop on the beat was off-duty for nearly a decade. And this gave rise to a culture of permissiveness,” Waxman said.

Waxman said the agency’s problems escalated dramatically under a “secretive task force” on energy organized by former Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001. The task force gave Interior marching orders to provide incentives to oil and gas companies to increase domestic production, while reducing regulatory impediments that may slow production, Waxman said.

He told Norton that under her watch, it appeared that the mission of the Minerals Management Service — the Interior agency responsible for offshore drilling — was mainly to serve the oil and gas industry by helping to expand deepwater drilling.

Her decisions “sent a clear message: the priority was more drilling first, safety second,” Waxman said.

Norton, now a lawyer for Royal Dutch Shell oil company, called that unfair. Interior took numerous steps to increase safety, including reducing areas where drilling was permitted off the coast of Florida, she said.

Norton said the 2001 terrorist attacks brought the need for domestic energy production “shockingly into focus,” adding that the attacks transformed the need for more domestic energy “into a matter of grave national security.”

Norton and Kempthorne urged Congress to take a balanced approach, increasing safety while not unnecessarily impeding domestic drilling.

Both said they opposed the six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling imposed by the Obama administration.

“In my mind you don’t ground all the airplanes because there was one problem” with a plane crash, Norton said.

“The important thing is to address the (safety) issues, not send the drilling rigs overseas where they may not return for several years,” with the result that thousands of jobs are sent to other countries, she said.

Kempthorne called an initial safety review appropriate after the initial explosion, but said the moratorium now is causing more harm than good. A former Idaho governor and senator, Kempthorne is now a business consultant in Idaho and Washington, D.C.


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