OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Waxman questions spill response as investigations begin

A congressional leader on energy issues is questioning whether companies that own and leased the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig have done enough to contain the environmental damage from the thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

"A striking feature of the incident is the apparent lack of an adequate plan to contain the spreading environmental damage," House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wrote today in letters to executives of the two companies.

Waxman also announced his committee will investigate the preparations of rig owner TransOcean Ltd. and BP Exploration and Production, which leased it. Along with Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), Waxman wrote to the top executives of the companies, seeking documents detailing their emergency readiness and preparations.

The companies, they wrote, "are attempting to contain the oil spilling from the well with techniques that have never been used before at these ocean depths."

Waxman is considered one of Capitol Hill's most aggressive interrogators, having previously served as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He dogged the George W. Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war, and his other targets have included tobacco executives and Wall Street executives who received bailout money.

The Coast Guard today said it is considering burning the 400-square-mile sheen of crude oil tomorrow to try to prevent it from washing ashore.

"This is an option in the toolkit," said Rear Adm. Mary Landry, commander of the New Orleans-based 8th Coast Guard District.

Landry said the burn would not be nearly as large as the fire that raged on the drilling rig for two days before the rig sank and would not be visible from shore.

The oil is 20 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Landry said they are not expecting the oil to reach the shore in the next three days. Some state officials have started laying out booms to protect shorelines.

"It is the closest it's been to shore" since the rig sank, Landry said.

Also today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signed an order laying out the next steps in investigating the cause of the explosion and spill that left three workers critically injured and 11 missing and presumed dead.

The joint investigation will have the power to issue subpoenas, hold public hearings, call witnesses and take other steps that may be needed to determine the cause of the incident.

The Coast Guard and the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service share jurisdiction for the investigation. MMS is responsible for investigating incidents related to exploration, drilling, production and pipeline operations for oil and gas on the outer continental shelf. The Coast Guard investigates the causes of maritime industry deaths, injuries, property loss and environmental damage.

"We will remain focused on providing every resource we can to support the massive response effort under way at the Deepwater Horizon, but we are also aggressively and quickly investigating what happened and what can be done to prevent this type of incident in the future," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

BP executives were to meet today with top Obama administration officials, including Napolitano, Salazar, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, White House climate adviser Carol Browner, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and the Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen to discuss the response effort.

About 1,000 people have responded to the incident; they have used nearly 15,000 gallons of oil dispersant so far. Nearly 50,000 gallons of oily water have been collected. More than 50 vessels have responded, including eight underwater vehicles.

Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed.

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