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Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today presided over a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, the Environment and Related Agencies to learn more about the Obama Administration’s plans to reorganize the Minerals Management Service (MMS). Senator Feinstein chairs the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appeared as the primary witness, and was joined by Michael Bromwich, the recently appointed new director of MMS.  

Below is the prepared text of Chairman Feinstein’s opening statement:

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Interior Subcommittee’s oversight hearing on the proposed reorganization of the Minerals Management Service.

On May 19, as part of his overall response to the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Secretary of the Interior issued an order, the purpose of which was to:

‘… separate and reassign the responsibilities that had been conducted by the Mineral Management Service into new management structures that will improve the management, oversight, and accountability of activities on the Outer Continental Shelf; ensure a fair return to the taxpayer from royalty and revenue collection; and provide independent safety and environmental oversight and enforcement of offshore activities.’

Our principal witness this morning — the person who will walk us through the proposed reorganization — is the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Ken Salazar.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary for finding time in what I know has been an incredibly busy schedule.

We’re also joined by Michael Bromwich, a former Inspector General at the Department of Justice who has been appointed by the President to implement the reorganization and reform effort.  You have a herculean task in front of you Mr. Bromwich, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts as well.

In addition to reviewing the reprogramming, our purpose here is to focus on the performance of the Minerals Management Service, to try to understand what went wrong, and to hear from the Secretary the details of his proposed reorganization and why he believes this proposal is the right way to go.

The key question underlying everything that’s discussed here today is this:  How does the proposed reorganization address the manifest failure of the Minerals Management Service to protect the Gulf of Mexico and the people who live and work there?

I want to be clear that, by law, the Department of the Interior is responsible for ensuring the safe and clean production of oil and natural gas on the Outer Continental Shelf, no one else. And this responsibility cannot be delegated.

BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and the rest of the companies operating in the Gulf and elsewhere are required to obey the law, abide by the decisions of the Interior Department, and clean up any mess they create.

But they are not responsible for setting the safety standards, promulgating the rules, and ensuring full compliance with those rules.

Unfortunately, at virtually every juncture leading up to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire, the Minerals Management Service failed in its duty:

  • MMS gave BP a categorical exclusion from an environmental impact analysis that in my opinion should never have been allowed.  
  • MMS allowed BP to run a drilling operation without the demonstrated ability to shut off the flow of gas and oil in an emergency.  
  • MMS allowed BP to operate without remote shutoff capability in case the drilling rig became disabled.  
  • MMS did not have an inspector on the rig to settle the heated argument between the BP, Transocean, and Halliburton officials on how they would stop drilling and plug the well.  
  • MMS did not have — and did not require the industry to have — emergency equipment stationed in the Gulf of Mexico that could respond immediately to an emergency.  
  • MMS did not have a plan for responding to disasters.
  • MMS did not, in fact, have a real inspection and compliance program.  It relied on the expertise and advice of the industry on how and how much they should be inspected.

Mr. Secretary, I understand that you intend to reimpose the moratorium on new drilling in depths over 500 feet that was set aside yesterday by a federal District Court judge. Until you reimpose the moratorium, drilling will resume at up to 33 wells in deep waters of the United States, some of which may not have adequate safety equipment, backup technology, or sufficiently trained personnel.  This is deeply troubling.

I want you to know that I fully support the moratorium and hope you do reimpose it as quickly as possible. 

The last 64 days have clearly demonstrated that the technology in use for deepwater drilling is not sufficient to prevent or stop environmental disasters.  Prior to the BP spill, containment and termination of oil leaks at depths of 5,000 feet had never been tried before. 

Now we know that they are not good enough. 

  • The blowout ‘fail-safe’ preventer failed to prevent the methane gas bubbles from exploding, causing the wellhead blowout, the deaths of 11 works, and starting the spill.
  • Remotely operated underwater vehicles failed to trigger the blind shear ram, which should have cut the pipe cleanly so it could be capped.  The Deepwater Horizon did not have a backup blind shear ram.  
  • The ‘cofferdam’– a four story structure lowered onto the gusher to trap the escaping oil and allow it to be piped to a waiting vessel above – didn’t work, because the methane gas coming from the leak combined with the cold seawater to form methane hydrate crystals, which blocked the top of the dome.
  • The ‘soda straw’ – which siphoned only a few thousand barrels of oil each day – had to be removed to allow other efforts to terminate the leak to proceed.
  • ‘Top kill’ and ‘junk shot’ – pumping heaving drilling fluids and debris into the wellhead to block it up before sealing it with concrete – failed to stop the oil.

The only method that appears to have had some limited measure of success is the ‘top hat,’ which is in place on top of the well head. But it allows oil to escape into the ocean because the method for applying it – diamond shears, failed to cut a clean edge on the pipe and the capping device doesn’t fit well.

Experts now tell us that a permanent end to this spill will not happen until the relief wells are drilled, intercepting the existing wellbore, and killing the leak from the bottom.  And the wells won’t be ready until August, at the earliest.
A moratorium is appropriate to ensure that:

  • all available safety measures are in place on every drilling rig, including backup blowout preventers;
  • safety equipment is thoroughly tested and deemed operable for the depth at which it may be required; and
  • operators are sufficiently trained.

Mr. Secretary, we look forward to hearing how the reorganization will prevent future disasters and how it will position the agency to quickly and effectively react if such a disaster should happen again.

I turn now to the distinguished Ranking Member, Senator Alexander, for any comments he may wish to make.”