Obama slams oil-drilling executives, pledges to tighten rules on offshore exploration

Tribune Washington Bureau

Angrily condemning “finger pointing” by oil-drilling executives over the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama on Friday pledged to tighten federal oversight of fuel companies and ordered a rigorous review of domestic oil and gas exploration.

Recent congressional hearings about the accident were a “ridiculous spectacle” in which BP, Transocean and Halliburton executives blamed others, Obama said, even though there’s clearly “enough responsibility to go around.”

“That includes, by the way, the federal government,” Obama told reporters after a morning meeting with top advisors. “For a decade or more there has been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill.”

Obama said he is ordering a new examination of the environmental procedures for oil and gas exploration and development, along with inspections of all deep-water operations in the gulf. No plans to drill will go forward at least until his initial 30-day review is complete, the president said.

The orders come on the heels of BP requests for government assistance in the clean-up of crude oil now headed toward the coast, the result of the April 22 sinking of Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig about 40 miles offshore.

Along with its pledge to help clean up and contain the spillage, the Obama administration has also promised a vigorous federal effort to figure out what caused the spill and who is responsible for it.

On Friday, Obama made it clear he thinks federal officials are among the responsible parties. The federal agency that issues permits to drill has done so “based on little more than assurances” from the oil companies that their plans were safe, he said.

“We will trust but we will verify,” Obama said of the future permitting process.

Obama is directing the Interior Department and the White House Council on Environmental Quality to review how regulators apply the nation’s signature environmental statute to offshore drilling proposals, according to administration officials.

As part of it, officials will examine how the Minerals Management Service, the branch of Interior that oversees oil and gas development on federal lands and offshore, applies the National Environmental Policy Act when reviewing plans to drill offshore.

In particular, the move appears to target the service’s common practice of bypassing a lengthy analysis of drilling proposals’ environmental impact. Instead, officials have frequently waived that review after deciding proposals qualify for so-called “categorical exclusions,” because the drilling plans do not pose a significant risk of environmental harm.

The BP drilling plan that included the Deepwater Horizon received such an exclusion, along with hundreds of others.

BP and related donors contributed half a million dollars to federal candidates during the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with Obama as the top single recipient.

“We remain focused on providing every resource we can to support the massive response effort underway at the Deepwater Horizon, but we are also aggressively and quickly investigating what happened and what can be done to prevent this type of incident in the future,” said Ken Salazar, secretary of the Interior. “A review of the overall [National Environmental Policy Act] procedures for the [Minerals Management Service] is an important part of the ongoing comprehensive and thorough investigation of this incident, but it also continues the reform effort that we have been undertaking at MMS and throughout Interior.”

Salazar announced earlier this week that he would split MMS into two branches – one to regulate safety and environmental rules for domestic energy production, the other to issue leases and collect government royalties.

The president’s directives come as congressional leaders turn up the heat on the administration and BP over the spill.

The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall II (D-W.Va.), sent a letter Friday to Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality, asking for all CEQ documents on “categorical exclusions.” Rahall also pushed Salazar for copies of any offshore drilling safety proposals that the Interior Department considered but did not finalize in the last decade.

And the chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), fired off a letter to BP officials demanding to know their estimates of the current flow of oil from the leak. News reports and academic analyses suggest the flow is substantially higher than the official 5,000 barrels per day estimate.

“The public needs to know the answers to very basic questions,” Markey wrote. “How much oil is leaking into the Gulf and how much oil can be expected to end up on our shores and our ocean environment?”