Former Bush administration Secretaries Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne waited to be questioned as Republican and Democratic members of Congress debated whether the Bush or Obama administration was specifically responsible for the spill.
“On April 20,2010,the regulatory house of cards erected over an eight-year period by the Bush-Cheney administration collapsed with the explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig,” said Rep. Edward Markey,D-Mass.,who chairs the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Rep. Joe Barton,R-Texas,fired back,saying the blowout was a result of many leadership failures of the Obama administration,including decisions made by Secretary Ken Salazar.
“Americans want to understand what the Obama administration's response to the oil spill was and is,both in terms of what it did not do to stop the spread of oil and what it is doing right now apparently to stop the energy production,” Barton said.
Other members of Congress argued that the hearing should not be partisan and urged their fellow legislators to focus on the resolution and cleanup of the Gulf Coast.
“This is a process that is necessary for the sake of our future. It is not and should not be a blame-assigning task,” Rep. John Shadegg,R-Ariz.,said. “What we need to do is find out what went wrong.”
The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations co-hosted the hearing. It was the fourth hearing about the investigation of the cause and results of the spill.
Many subcommittee members asked Norton and Kempthorne about the former administration's impact on the current environmental crisis. Norton was secretary from 2001 to 2006,and was succeeded by Kempthorne,who held the position until 2009. Specific decisions were discussed regarding an energy task force headed by former Vice President Dick Cheney,which encouraged offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Norton defended the department's actions and attempted to place accountability on the regulatory agency that oversees oil drilling.
“The Minerals Management Service was the agency responsible for offshore leasing and regulation under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act,” Norton said.
MMS is part of Interior. A 2008 Inspector General's report cited irregularities at the agency beginning in 2002,including gifts from oil company officials and allegations of improper sexual relations and drug use. The agency has been renamed and reorganized since the BP disaster.
Norton said the environmental record in the Gulf Coast was impressive during the Bush administration. She said that,of 6.3 billion barrels of oil produced,less than 1 percent had spilled since 1985,according to the 2001 National Energy Policy Report.
Salazar was equally defensive. He said many parties share responsibility for the spill. He also made an effort to address concerns about how the current moratorium for new deepwater drilling is damaging the economy.
“There is a tendency to blame everybody involved,and,in my point of view,there is a shared responsibility … for how we respond,” Salazar said. “We are aware of the effects of the moratorium,but we also believe that it would be irresponsible to take our hand off the pause button,given the current circumstance.”
While the debate continued inside the House hearing room,dozens of clean-energy activists and faith groups held a rally outside the Capitol. Leaders of Greenpeace,Public Citizen,Friends of the Earth and the Gulf Restoration Network spoke about Congress' connections with big oil corporations.
Friends of the Earth passed out wanted posters for what they called the “BP Ten,” members of the House and Senate who have received the most campaign contributions from political action committees or individuals associated with BP. FOE cites OpenSecrets.org,which reports that the oil and gas industry as a whole has made $238.7 million in political contributions since 1990,with 75 percent going to Republicans.
“We have a dramatic challenge in front of us. We have to deal with the problem of oil money,we have to deal with the problem of corporate money sloshing through our Congress,” said Robert Weissman,president of Public Citizen. “The first step is to get the oil money out of Congress.”
Phil Radford,executive director of Greenpeace,accused legislators of hiding information about their ties with oil corporations and their responsibility to clean the Gulf Coast.
“We want the mess cleaned up and the destruction of people's lives dealt with,” Radford said. “We want no more deep sea drilling and we want an energy revolution in this country.”