WASHINGTON – Grilled by skeptical lawmakers, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday acknowledged his agency had been lax in overseeing offshore drilling activities and that may have contributed to the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“There will be tremendous lessons to be learned here,” Salazar told a Senate panel in his first appearance before Congress since the April 20 blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
His appearances before two of the three Senate panels holding hearings Tuesday on the spill came as federal officials kept a wary eye on the expanding dimensions of the problem. The government increased the area of the Gulf where fishing is shut down to 46,000 square miles, or about 19 percent of federal waters. That’s up from about 7 percent before.
Government scientists were anxiously surveying the Gulf to determine if the oil had entered a powerful current that could take it to Florida and eventually up the East Coast. Tar balls that washed up on Florida’s Key West were shipped to a Coast Guard laboratory in Connecticut to determine if they came from the Gulf spill.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen told the Senate Commerce Committee the growing size and scattershot nature of the oil spill was creating “severe challenges” in containing it and cleaning it up. He called it more complicated than any spill he’s ever seen.
“What we’re basically trying to do is protect the whole coast at one time,” Allen said.
Salazar, testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, promised an overhaul of federal regulations and said blame for the BP spill rests with both industry and the government, particularly his agency’s Minerals Management Service.
President Barack Obama, who has decried the “cozy relationship” between government regulators and the energy industry, has proposed splitting the agency into two parts to separate regulatory duties from those who collect royalty fees from oil and gas companies.
BP said Tuesday it was collecting about 84,000 gallons a day from a mile-long tube drawing oil from the blown-out well to a ship on the surface. But it cautioned that increasing the flow through the tube would be difficult.