OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Salazar praises funding boost but says GOP bills reflect 'amnesia'

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today praised Congress' proposed $58 million funding boost for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, calling it an "important first step" to obtaining the necessary personnel and resources to prevent a repeat of last year's BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But while the agency has made significant strides in the safe resumption of deepwater drilling, Salazar criticized proposals by House Republicans to accelerate and expand offshore development.

A trio of bills set for markup tomorrow from House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) would set deadlines for Gulf permitting, require the revival of delayed and canceled leases, and expand development opportunities to Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic waters.

"Much of the legislation I've seen bandied around, especially with the House Republicans, it's almost as if the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well incident never happened," Salazar said during a briefing with reporters at Interior headquarters.

Hastings' proposal to require Interior to act on deepwater drilling proposals within 60 days reflects "amnesia" regarding the BP spill and the difficulty regulators and industry faced cleaning it up, Salazar said.

"Some people seem to have gotten amnesia of Deepwater Horizon and the horrific BP spill," he said. "I don't have amnesia."

Another Macondo well blowout without the ability to contain the oil would mean the "death" of domestic offshore oil and gas development, he added.

Salazar and BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich both praised a last-minute budget deal to fund the agency at $239 million for the duration of the fiscal year, a funding boost that would enable a doubling of the agency's oil and gas inspections team, appropriators said.

"I'm happy to say with the development of the continuing resolution for the remainder of this fiscal year, we're going to be in a much better position to do all those things than we were before," Bromwich said, referring to enhanced regulations to boost environmental protection and human safety.

But, Salazar added, "Whether it is sufficient is still very much an open question."

More legislation needed

Salazar warned that his agency still seeks congressional approval to triple the amount of time it has to review exploration plans and wants clearer authority to create an institute for ocean energy safety, a role that is currently being fulfilled through an advisory committee.

Bromwich also said his agency is considering seeking authority to extend its regulations beyond offshore operators to include contractors and subcontractors such as Transocean Ltd. and Halliburton Co., which both played a role in the Deepwater Horizon incident.

"That dramatically limits the scope of our oversight in ways that make me question whether there is a different and better way to do business," Bromwich said.

In addition, his agency is reviewing whether a company's disciplinary records or previous fines should play a role in how the agency reviews project proposals.

BP, for example, will be treated the same way as every other company as it pursues a resumption of exploratory drilling in the Gulf, Salazar said.

"We have done well within our existing authorities and our existing resources," Salazar said. "Can more be done? Absolutely, both on the legislative front and resources."