WASHINGTON Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on Tuesday the U.S. government was investigating another big BP oil rig while admitting his agency came up short in preventing the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Salazar testified at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing about the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, BP Plc a drilling rig, four weeks ago that caused a massive oil spill deep in the Gulf. He said offshore drilling was vital to meeting U.S. energy needs but that additional safety measures were required.
Salazar told the committee the government was now investigating safety concerns at BP's Atlantis oil production platform in the Gulf after the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 people and spilled vast amounts of crude.
Salazar gave no further details but an Interior spokeswoman confirmed the department's Minerals Management Service -- the agency that has come under criticism from Congress and President Barack Obama for being too "cozy" with oil companies -- was investigating the BP platform.
Atlantis is one of the largest production facilities, producing about 200,000 barrels of oil per day. BP owns 56 percent of the field while BHP holds the rest.
About 30 percent of U.S. oil production comes from the Gulf of Mexico.
A consumer group and a whistle-blower asked a U.S. court to stop production at Atlantis until safety documents are produced. The lawsuit accuses the MMS of failing to enforce its own regulations.
MMS NEEDS "CLEAN UP"
Salazar, who has ordered the MMS to separate its oil royalty collection and safety inspection roles, admitted the MMS fell short in preventing the explosion oil spill.
"Responsibility starts first at the Department of Interior and the Minerals Management Service. We have to clean up that house," he said.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said the MMS has been in denial over its safety problems for years. "It is long past time to drain this safety and environmental swamp," he told the hearing.
But despite the problems with offshore drilling, Salazar also said it still was a necessary part of meeting U.S. energy needs.
Senate Commerce Committee chairman Senator Jay Rockefeller said it would be difficult for him to support future offshore drilling until the Deepwater Horizon accident is fully investigated.
"If left unchecked and uncorrected, we may very well see another terrible disaster of this magnitude," he said.
Election-year politics made their way into the oil spill debate on Tuesday when Democrats for the second time in a week tried to force a Senate vote on a bill to increase oil companies' liability for accidents. The move was blocked by Republicans as expected.
Senator Robert Menendez, one of the Democrats seeking approval for the bill that would increase the liability cap per company per incident to $10 billion from $75 million, said Democratic senators were considering pushing legislation that would place no limits on the liability.
Salazar said the Obama administration agreed that the liability cap needed to be lifted though he would not give a specific number for how high it should be.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; writing by Deborah Charles; Editing by Bill Trott)