Norton, Kempthorne defend OCS decisions in House hearing

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, July 27 -- Two former US Interior secretaries firmly refused to accept some US House members’ efforts to second-guess the DOI officials’ offshore oil and gas decisions in light of the Apr. 20 Gulf of Mexico deepwater well blowout, rig explosion, and oil spill. The decisions were based on the best available information at the time, they told two House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittees on July 21.

Gale A. Norton, who led the department from 2001 to 2006, and Dirk A. Kempthorne, who led DOI from 2006 to early 2009, also disagreed with current Secretary Ken Salazar’s deepwater drilling moratorium. But they otherwise backed his response and actions following the accident at BP PLC’s Macondo well that killed 11 people and set off the massive spill as they appeared before a joint hearing of the Energy and Environment and Oversight and Investigations subcommittees. “I am not going to criticize my successor, who has a very tough job in a very difficult situation,” Kempthorne declared.

Salazar, who testified later in the day-long hearing, and his two predecessors each said that BP apparently cut corners at the well. “I would also say that this administration, as well as its predecessors, was lulled into a false sense of security by 40 years of safe operations offshore,” he added in response to a question about the White House and DOI moving ahead with developing their own 5-year OCS schedule weeks before the accident.

When Norton said her recollection was that there was a process of looking at well blowout scenarios on a broad scale and then considering specific situations under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, however, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, was skeptical. “My recollection is that there was a deregulatory ticking time bomb armed during your tenure that went off,” he told her. “A climate of complacency was set by boosterism, which led to deregulation that led to this catastrophe.”

Norton replied, “Decisions at that time were based on the record up to that time.”

‘The best advice’
Markey subsequently asked Kempthorne about a decision to eliminate a blowout scenario at the Macondo well during his tenure. The former secretary said he had relied on advice from staff members at what was then the US Minerals Management Service. “Based on what had been a 40-year history, I believe they took the appropriate action and gave me the best advice they could,” he added.

He firmly refused to say this might have been a mistake despite Markey’s insistence that it was. “I would say that even though we had a 40-year track record, the catastrophe 40 days ago changed our assumptions,” Kempthorne said. “I would also note that the current administration operated under the same earlier assumptions until recently.”

When Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who chairs the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, asked Kempthorne if he had been aware of BP’s violations of other federal regulations when it submitted the highest bid for the deepwater tract where it drilled the Macondo well, Kempthorne said it might have been an appropriate consideration.

“I think it makes sense to have a bad-actor prohibition,” Norton added. “I also think it could be troublesome to try and manipulate the process in which leases go to the highest bid.”

Salazar told the subcommittees that changes developed in his 30-day report to President Barack Obama following the accident and information from ongoing investigations are being implemented, including those dealing with subsea blowout preventers and well design which the Energy and Commerce Committee addressed in a bill it referred to the House floor. “I appreciate the leadership of this committee in what was supposed to be a fail-safe mechanism but which was not,” the secretary said. “We may need to work some things out on technical issues, but the thrust of your bill was correct.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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