The Interior Department is cracking down on employees who oversee offshore drilling in the wake of an inspector general report showing inspectors took gifts from and had cozy relationships with oil officials, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today.
Salazar condemned the behavior of the Minerals Management Service inspectors cited in the IG report as "reprehensible" and said some acts were "indeed criminal."
"Those are absolutely inappropriate behaviors," Salazar said. "I think we need to have a tough hand and we will have a tough hand."
Appropriate personnel actions are being taken, including firings, he said.
"I can tell you that my belief is most of the employees of MMS are good public servants," Salazar said. "I would say there are bad apples, and those bad apples will be rooted out."
He has ordered the inspector general to investigate whether ethical lapses have continued since the Obama administration took office.
But Salazar largely placed the blame on the George W. Bush administration, saying the bias toward oil companies was part of the culture of MMS and of the previous administration. He said that for oil companies, "essentially whatever it is they wanted, is what they got" during the Bush years but that the Obama administration has "turned the ship."
"The issues that are raised in that report are issues that go back to 2005, 2006, 2007," he said.
But he said additional reforms must be made, noting that MMS will be split into three agencies to separate its enforcement, leasing and revenue collection duties. He also said there needs to be legislation establishing the agencies to oversee offshore drilling, since MMS was established by a secretarial order in 1982.
"It is not enough to say we solved the problem," Salazar said.
Salazar defended the administration efforts in the wake of the disaster, calling it relentless and the "single largest response" effort in the history of the country to an oil spill.
"No effort is being spared," he said.
He expressed "fervent hope" that the "top kill" effort to stop the leak works but said if it does not, "There is a Plan B." Numerous administration officials are monitoring the effort "as key decision points are made," he said. Salazar left the hearing shortly after noon to monitor the top-kill effort.
While BP is the responsible party, Salazar said it is the government's responsibility to ensure the oil giant does the job required of it.
He did not repeat comments he made on the weekend saying the government could push BP out of the way if it is not doing what it is supposed to but said the government officials "have them by the neck and will keep them by the neck."
Salazar said BP officials have assured him they will pay economic damages and "are not hiding behind the liability cap." Noting the company made billions of dollars in profit last year, he added, "I think they will be good for paying."
Noting that Interior will submit its findings from a preliminary investigation on the oil spill to Obama tomorrow, Salazar said, "There are significant enhancements that can be made with respect to safety of outer continental shelf oil and gas development."
He also said the IG is investigating MMS's role in the Deepwater Horizon explosion. "It's important we know the truth and the whole truth," he said.
Rather than shut down offshore drilling altogether or refusing to make changes, Salazar said the administration will make adjustments based on lessons learned from the spill.
"I would ask you to stay tuned and there will be additional announcements that will be coming," Salazar said.
Salazar noted that in March the administration pulled back lease sales off Alaska that had been planned by the Bush administration, given questions about safety and response capabilities. Asked about whether the administration will give final approval to exploratory drilling off Alaska scheduled to begin in 35 days, Salazar said the administration is weighing what to do.
"Those are being examined and adjustments will be made in the days or weeks ahead," he said.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said the MMS name has come to stand for "misconduct, mismanagement and spills." He also pressed Salazar on producing a better estimate of how much oil is leaking. Salazar acknowledged that BP would have a "financial interest" in not having a specific estimate because monetary penalties for spills are calculated per barrel spilled.