06/02/2011 07:01 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2011

Michael Bromwich Spars With House GOP Over Gulf Oil Spill Response

WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department's Michael Bromwich on Thursday pushed back against GOP lawmakers who denounced the administration for its response to last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and rejected Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's (R) contention that the moratorium on deepwater drilling is too burdensome for residents.

In a hearing before the House oversight committee, Bromwich, the Interior Department's top drilling official, defended the Obama administration's handling of Gulf Coast recovery efforts even as Barbour insisted the federal drilling ban enacted by the Obama administration was more harmful to the Gulf Coast economy than the spill itself.

"While we and many others will continue to monitor and analyze events and readings from the Gulf to learn if some currently unrecognized or future development changes the situation, it appears the Gulf has essentially digested the oil and other chemicals thus far," Barbour said in a statement Thursday. "Further, in our state, on-shore impacts were quickly remediated, and there is no apparent residual environmental damage."

Barbour said there have been more than 31,000 oil wells drilled in the Gulf of Mexico in the last 50 years and that nothing like the last year's spill, which killed 11 rig workers and dumped almost five million barrels of oil into the Gulf, has ever happened before.

"The president's commission says that that's not so," countered Bromwich, noting there have been dozens of similar incidents in the past 15 years.

“They cite 79 incidents of loss of well control ... between 1996 and 2009," Bromwich said. "So another way to describe that is 79 near-misses, 79 almost-Deepwater Horizons. So without going into the details of each one, that's what the president's commission found. So to say that the risk is one in a million, or one in 'x'-thousand of deepwater wells drilled is not accurate."

"We will never be able to reduce the risk to zero," Bromwich continued. "We know that and you know that. But we have to work constructively to try to diminish those risks in a balanced way so that we don't impose inappropriately high costs on industry and yet we do raise the bar on safety."

Thursday's battle over drilling came amid mounting criticism from House Republicans of the White House's performance following the Gulf oil spill disaster last year.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) alleged the administration was more concerned about protecting its own media profile than protecting the jobs and livelihoods of Gulf residents. He also accused officials of stalling drilling permits in the area.

"Much of the suffering and loss from the spill was made worse by the poor decisions of administration officials," Issa wrote in a statement. "At times, the administration actively hindered the efforts of local officials and others with expertise in protecting the region’s fragile ecosystem ... 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."

In fact, 55 new shallow-water drilling permits have been issued since new standards were implemented in June 2010. And data from ODS-Petrodata, a Houston-based oil and gas research company, found there were more rigs in the Gulf in February 2011 than there were before the oil spill.

"In response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama Administration launched the most aggressive and comprehensive reforms to offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight in U.S. history," Bromwich said his closing statement. "Operators must demonstrate that they are capable of deploying adequate resources to deal with a well blowout for each well they propose to drill, which industry did not do until mid-February," he added.

"Following Deepwater Horizon, it would be unforgivable not to require operators to make this demonstration," he concluded.