WASHINGTON — Two former Interior secretaries told Congress today 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, a former Idaho governor 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.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the panel’s chairman, 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.
Under her watch, he told Norton, 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. Under her watch, Interior took numerous steps to increase safety, including reducing the area 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 a 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 year,” with the result that thousands of jobs are sent to other countries, she said.
Kempthorne called an initial safety review appropriate after the April 20 explosion, which killed 11 men, but said the moratorium now is causing more harm than good.