Workers hired by BP move oil containment booms in Orange Beach, Ala., on May 8 to keep oil off the coastline, in this U.S. Navy photo taken by Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas L. Rosprim.

Executives Begin Capitol Hill Testimony

An outside expert supported splitting the U.S. Minerals Management Service into separate safety and revenue-collection agencies, a move Interior Secretary Salazar announced today.

The U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee held a hearing this morning on the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico and the spreading oil spill that resulted from the blowout and the platform's sinking. Eleven workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon at the time of the explosion have not been found and are presumed dead.

BP and federal officials continue to try various methods to cap the well 5,000 feet below the surface of the gulf, even as BP offers safety training to response personnel in conjunction with OSHA and is paying for response by hundreds of vessels. Today's hearing is only the start of many inquiries into the incident -- BP and Transocean Ltd., which owns the platform, have begun their own investigations, and the U.S. Coast Guard opened its own investigation today -- and also started a "liability chase" among the companies involved, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said during his questioning of the first two outside experts called to testify today.

Elmer Danenberger, former chief of the Offshore Regulatory Program for MMS, offered several recommendations but began by saying deepwater drilling for oil and gas is fundamentally safe. "There's extensive history with deepwater drilling: over a thousand wells drilled in more than a thousand feet of water," he told the committee, adding that blowout prevention technology used in deepwater drilling is better than what is used in shallow water. He recommended establishing an independent commission to look at the incident, an independent investigative authority for major offshore accidents, an expanded role for the Coast Guard's offshore safety advisory committee, and an annual forum to let everyone share the information discovered. Danenberger also expressed support for a private system for collecting and assessing failure data for blowout prevention, with the data publicly released, and a thorough review of blowout preventer (BOP) performance.

MMS is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior and has been criticized for handling two potentially conflicting responsibilities: collecting revenue from drilling and also overseeing the safety of drilling operations. In response to a question, Danenberger said internationally those duties are normally done by separate agencies. Now, the two MMS functions are being divided into separate agencies -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today said he will restructure MMS into one inspection/investigation/enforcement agency and a separate, independent leasing/revenue collection/permitting agency. Salazar also announced the administration will submit oil spill response legislation to Congress containing $20 million for added oil platform inspections and safety regulation enforcement, has asked the National Academy of Engineering to investigate root causes of the Deepwater Horizon incident, and wants to change the 30-day deadline for MMS to respond to a submitted drilling plan to 90 days, or more if MMS needs extra time to complete additional environmental analysis. 

Also testifying were Dr. F.E. Beck, associate professor at Texas A&M University; Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America Inc. in Houston; Steven Newman, president and chief executive of Transocean; and Tim Probert, president, global business lines and chief health, safety and environmental officer for Halliburton, also of Houston. McKay's testimony suggested Transocean was responsible for the drilling and the BOP's failure; Newman suggested Halliburton's cementing may have been at fault.

McKay, Newman, and Probert also are scheduled to testify Wednesday during the U.S. House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing about the spill, which will begin at 10 a.m.

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