Jul 20, 2010 6:02 PM by Melissa Canone
WASHINGTON (AP) - 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.
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
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.