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Interior Secretaries Under Bush And Obama Exposed By House Panel For Lax Oversight Of Oil Drilling

07/20/2010 05:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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A tough new memo from a House committee probing the Gulf oil spill exposes the Interior Department under Presidents Bush and Obama for its failure to properly oversee offshore oil drilling operations. The three most recent Interior Secretaries -- Gale Norton (2002-2006), Dirk Kempthorne (2006-2009), and Ken Salazar (2009-present) -- all come in for withering criticism and are due to testify at congressional hearing on Tuesday, where they are sure to be asked tough questions about their tenure.

The memorandum from the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Democratic majority staff takes perhaps the toughest stance on Norton's controversial tenure (she was recently the subject of a Justice Department probe into whether she acted improperly by granting Royal Dutch Shell several valuable oil shale leases on federal land shortly before she took a job with the oil giant -- DOJ has reportedly closed its probe as of last week).

Just two weeks after Bush was sworn into office in 2001, he asked Vice President Dick Cheney to head a task force to develop energy policy. The much-criticized task force met privately with oil and gas executives and Cheney repeatedly refused to disclose their identities. In May 2001, the group issued its report, which stated that "exploration and production from the OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] has an impressive environmental record." It also stated that existing environmental permitting laws and regulations, at the federal and state level, were creating "delays and uncertainties [that] can hinder proper energy exploration and production projects."

As the federal official responsible for implementing much of the administration's new energy policy, Norton encouraged offshore drilling with incentives for oil companies but she "imposed few new safety standards on offshore drilling operations," according to the memo.

"On multiple occasions, reports prepared for the Minerals Management Service (MMS) warned that the blowout preventers (BOPs) used on offshore wells were unreliable. The Department never acted on these warnings. The Department also rejected efforts begun in the Clinton Administration to strengthen federal regulation of offshore well cementing practices."

Kempthorne didn't perform much better -- after the sale of a lease for the Macondo well, the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, to BP for $34 million in 2008, he crowed that the agency had "won the championship." In addition, the memo describes the extent to which the agency underestimated the extent of any spill: "The environmental assessments prepared by the Department for the lease area found that the most likely size of a large spill would be just 4,600 barrels, less than 1% of the amount of oil that has been spilled from the Macondo well since April 20, 2010."

Under Kempthorne, the agency was also embroiled in an embarrassing scandal in 2008, in which it was revealed that government employees accepted gifts, used drugs with and had sex with oil industry officials.

Though the memo notes that Salazar has instituted some reforms and some needed regulations for the agency's Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore oil and gas drilling, it takes the agency to task for its decisions regarding the Deepwater Horizon. Specifically, MMS granted BP a "categorical exclusion" from the need to conduct a thorough site-specific environmental review. The agency also allowed BP to make several key revisions to the drilling site, changes which have been shown to have potentially played a major role in the rig's disastrous explosion on April 20, 2010.

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