Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gibbs: Obama will propose separation of agency's royalty collection, energy regulatory functions

President Obama will ask Congress to restructure the Minerals Management Service, separating its royalty-collection function from its regulatory responsibilities.

That's according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who said on Twitter this morning that Interior secretary Ken Salazar will announce the proposal today.

The Department of Interior's former inspector general, Earl Devaney, suggested that MMS' duties be split up since the 2008 ethics scandal involving the agency came to light.

More details to follow.

Senate committee holds hearing on Gulf oil spill, Obama plans to expand off-shore drilling

A Senate committee is scrutinizing the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this morning, as well as President Obama's plans to expand oil drilling off the nation's coasts.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee convened at 10 am EDT.

The committee's chairman, New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, said the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20 indicates that the country's energy extraction activities are plagued by deep-seeded problems.

“At the heart of this disaster are three interrelated systems – a technological system of materials and equipment, a human system of persons who operated the technological system and a regulatory system," Bingaman said in his opening statement. "These interrelated systems failed in a way that many had said was virtually impossible.”

The committee's ranking Republican member, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, expressed regret about the spill but said oil drilling at sea should be pursued even if the environmental and economic costs are significant.

"Under anyone’s most optimistic scenario, our nation will need a lot of oil for a long time to come," she said.

One early witness defended the federal government's principal regulator of oil firms, the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service, which has come under attack recently for an approach some critics consider too deferential to industry.

"Even when their own personal lives were disrupted, these people were on the job the next day," the agency's former head of offshore energy extraction regulation, Elmer Danenberger, said in reference to MMS employees work during hurricanes. “And ethics? These people won’t take a doughnut from industry. I know. I’ve tried to set them up."

In 2008 an investigation revealed that MMS employees had accepted financial gifts from the oil industry, engaged in financial self-dealing, and become involved in a sex and drug use scandal involving the companies they help to regulate.

Danenberger also said that the government must rely on the industry to self-regulate.

"There’s no number of volumes that is going to tell the operator precisely what to do in every situation," he said.

Under questioning from Murkowski, another witness said it is too early to say whether the oil spill could have been prevented through use of a device called a "blowout preventer."

"I don’t see that the conditions that this well was drilled into were severe or extreme relative to what the industry drills into," Dr. F.E. Beck, a petroleum engineering professor at Texas A&M University, said. “We’re capable of handling much higher formation pressures than my observation or deduction from the data tells us we encountered."

Beck also said it was not likely that the explosion was the result of a terrorist attack.