Officials Face Double-Barreled Oil Spill Hearings

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, expected to testify at back-to-back Senate hearings, vowed to give the federal agency that regulates oil drilling "more tools, more resources, more independence and greater authority" in the wake of the massive Gulf of Mexico spill.

Salazar, appearing before Congress for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank off Louisiana last month, said in prepared testimony that he intends to restructure the Minerals Management Service so that there is an "independent organization holding energy companies accountable."

Changes For Oversight Agency

Salazar faced a grilling from lawmakers during back-to-back Senate hearings Tuesday. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen also planned to testify at separate hearings, and oil company executives were back for a second round of questions before lawmakers.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has "made the importance and urgency of this reform agenda ever more clear," Salazar told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"We have instituted new ethics codes for the department," he said. "We have the inspector general involved with us, and making sure that the employees of MMS are abiding to the highest ethical standards that are possible."

In reference to allegations dating back to 2008 that members of the MMS partied with oil industry officials and otherwise maintained a "cozy" relationship with those they were charged with regulating, Salazar said the MMS had "some bad apples … and we have taken care of them."

While the secretary might well have been hoping to keep the hearing focused on opportunity for retooling oversight, panel Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) opened the hearing by saying that Congress planned to examine "the role of regulatory failure" in the accident at the BP-operated rig that has spilled untold barrels of oil into Gulf waters.

In anticipation of the tough questioning, Salazar announced Monday that he is tightening requirements for onshore oil and gas drilling. Those changes to the Bureau of Land Management do not apply to offshore drilling, but would "establish a more orderly, open, and environmentally sound process for developing oil and gas resources on public lands," Salazar said in a statement.

Tuesday's hearings come a day after the Minerals Management Service's director of all offshore drilling programs tendered his resignation. Chris Oynes had been the regional director in charge of Gulf offshore drilling for 13 years before he was promoted to oversee all offshore operations in 2007. Oynes told colleagues via e-mail that he would step down at the end of the month, The Associated Press reported.

Obama To Appoint Presidential Commission

President Obama is expected to name a presidential commission to investigate the cause of the rig explosion that unleashed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, where engineers are still struggling after three weeks to stop the flow.

The presidential panel will be similar to ones that examined the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, said a White House official, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been formally announced.

The commission would be one of nearly a dozen investigations and reviews launched since the April 20 explosion, although it probably would be the most comprehensive.

Last week, Obama decried what he called a badly failed offshore drilling system and said failures extended to the federal government and its "cozy" relationship with oil companies. MMS has long been criticized for being too close to industry.

BP Says Final Fix Could Take Months

BP, the company that leased the blown-out well, said Tuesday that it was gaining some control over the amount of oil spewing into the Gulf. Over the weekend, it successfully inserted a tube into the leaking pipeline to channel some oil to the surface in a controlled manner.

The British oil giant said the narrow tube is drawing off 2,000 barrels a day for collection in a tanker, double the amount when it started operation Sunday. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and BP have estimated the leak at 5,000 barrels a day, but scientists who viewed underwater video of the leak on behalf of NPR said it could be up to 10 times that amount.

BP spokesman Doug Suttles said it could be months before a final fix is in place.

"We'll attempt to stop the flow later this week," Suttles said. "If that's successful, then that will prevent new oil from spilling. Then, by the early part of August, we expect to have the relief well all the way down, which will permanently cap the well."

Tar Balls Found Off Florida Keys

Meanwhile, 20 tar balls found off Key West, Fla., are being tested to see if they came from the spill. The Florida Park Service found the tar balls, which measured 3 to 8 inches in diameter, during a shoreline survey Monday and sent them to a lab for analysis.

The Coast Guard said tar balls also have been turning up on the Gulf Coast shores of other states.

To reach the Florida Keys, the slick would have to become caught up in the "loop current" of the Gulf Stream, which winds around the Gulf of Mexico before heading north up the U.S. East Coast.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco says aerial surveys show some tendrils of light oil close to or already in the loop current but that most oil is dozens of miles away.

Lubchenco says it will take about eight to 10 days after oil enters the current before it begins to reach Florida. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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