The federal government should undertake “immediate and enhanced” inspections of all offshore drilling rigs and production platforms in the United States, to head off another potential monster oil spill, the Senate Democratic leadership says.
All five of the Senate’s top Democrats urged President Obama to order such inspections in a letter Wednesday, as upwards of 100,000 barrels of oil a day continue to leak into the Gulf of Mexico.
An explosion last month on an offshore drilling platform leased by energy giant BP, known as Deepwater Horizon, has unleashed the ongoing environmental and economic disaster that likely will be larger than the notorious 1989 ExxonValdez spill.
“As the Gulf Coast continues to be threatened by the lasting effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, we are deeply concerned that this accident could be repeated elsewhere,” the senators tell Obama. “While we commend you for taking quick action to inspect deepwater rigs and production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, we request that you order immediate and enhanced inspections of every offshore oil drilling rig and offshore oil production platform in United States waters that could pose a significant threat to the environment or the economy, no matter its location or depth.”
Such inspections should not be performed at taxpayer expense, says the letter, signed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Democratic Conference Vice Chair Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Menendez, too, is leading an effort to pass legislation to raise the liability cap BP would face for compensation for the spill, from $75 million up to $10 billion. Republicans, however, have blocked a vote on that bill.
The lawmakers’ letter also urges Obama to order a thorough review of the procedures used to carry out such inspections because previous inspections of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig “appear to have failed to reveal multiple, critical problems with the blow-out preventer (‘BOP’). The failure of that so-called BOP appears to have caused the massive disaster.
“We need foolproof testing procedures to guarantee equipment integrity, particularly when it comes to equipment like a BOP that must act as the last line of defense against disaster,” the letter says.
Ending A ‘Cozy’ Relationship
The senators note that Obama himself has criticized the relationship up until now between oil companies and federal regulators as too “cozy,” which has led Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to order a breakup of that regulatory agency, known as the Minerals Management Service (MMS).
“Together, we can help transform what you have termed a ‘cozy’ relationship between regulators and the oil industry into one in which the American people can feel confident that their safety comes first, before the oil industry’s profits,” the letter to Obama says. “We believe that the first step in reestablishing this trust is an immediate inspection of offshore rigs and an overhaul of all equipment testing procedures. Until we can ensure the safety of our offshore platforms, our nation’s coastlines will be threatened by the possibility of more man-made catastrophes.”
Meanwhile, Salazar Wednesday signed an order to begin the restructuring of MMS (PDF), which originally was created by the anti-regulatory Reagan administration. Salazar’s plan would break MMS into three separate agencies: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and an Office of Natural Resources Revenue.
“The Minerals Management Service has three distinct and conflicting missions that – for the benefit of effective enforcement, energy development, and revenue collection – must be divided,” Salazar says. “The reorganization I am ordering today is the next step in our reform agenda and will enable us to carry out these three separate and equally-important missions with greater effectiveness and transparency. These reforms will strengthen oversight of offshore energy operations, improve the structure for revenue and royalty collections on behalf of the American people, and help our country build the clean energy future we need.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.