Political wrangling over oil spill a year later

More than a year after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, House members traded political recriminations anew Thursday over the Obama administration's response to the environmental and economic disaster.

Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee charged that President Barack Obama added to the woes of the Gulf region by giving BP PLC, the owner of the well, the lead role in responding to the crisis. They also said the administration erred in imposing a moratorium on deep water drilling.

Democrats countered that the spill spurred new safety regulations that ensure there will never be a repeat of the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, until recently considered a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination, questioned the administration's decision to rely on the Oil Pollution Act, enacted in 1990 in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, for guidance on how to respond to the crisis.

The OPA holds the responsible party, in this case BP, accountable for all costs and gives them a central role in response to an oil spill. The federal government directs the effort. Barbour said Obama should have gone with the Stafford Act, under which the federal government aids states in responding to hurricanes and other natural disasters.

The OPA was a "usurpation of state authority," Barbour said, noting that he "sent people to Walmart to buy radios" because of the lack of communication with the Coast Guard on efforts to keep oil off the state's coastline.

"At times," said committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., "the administration actively hindered the efforts of local officials and others with expertise in protecting the region's fragile ecosystem."

The other main point of contention was Obama's decision to impose a six-month moratorium on exploratory drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet. The moratorium was lifted in October, but critics say the granting of drilling permits has been too slow because of tough new safety regulations. Shallow water exploration and production and deep water production were never halted.

"The administration wasted no time in effectively shutting offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the consequence of which has been a paralyzing loss of jobs in an already weak economy," Issa said.

Interior Department official Michael Bromwich disputed GOP claims the moratorium had interrupted production in the Gulf and led to higher gas prices, saying it "has had no impact on production because production was not stopped or delayed."

A report prepared by Republicans for the hearing cited an internal memo from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last July in which he said he was aware that suspension of deep water drilling "over the next few months will have a serious negative impact on rig workers and those who support them."

The GOP-led House last month passed legislation to speed up decision-making on drilling permits and to force previously scheduled lease sales. Similar legislation was defeated in the Senate, but Obama has directed the Interior Department to extend for a year leases in the Gulf and off Alaska's coast that were impacted by the moratorium and hold more frequent lease sales in a federal petroleum reserve in Alaska.

The administration says that since February it has granted permits for 15 deep water wells that meet new safety standards for containment. In the past year it has issued 55 permits for shallow-water wells.

Bromwich defended administration policies, saying that since the oil spill "the Obama administration launched the most aggressive and comprehensive reforms to offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight in U.S. history." Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said criticisms of the pace of issuing new drilling permits ignore that exploration in the Gulf was on the decline before the spill and that new safety rules are critical to the interests of the country.

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said that in the past year the Interior Department has "implemented a number of critical safety measures to ensure that a blowout like this would never happen again."

Republicans, in their report, also questioned what they said was the radical reorganization of the Minerals Management Service, the agency that regulated energy development, a month after the spill, and cast doubt about the independence of the office established to disburse $20 billion in BP funds to victims.

"Concerns exist about excessive compensation delays, inconsistent judgments ... and efforts to dissuade victims from obtaining legal representation," the report said.

The Gulf Coast Claims Facility headed by attorney Kenneth Feinberg had paid almost $4.3 billion to settle 188,000 of some 514,000 claims, as of the end of May.