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Napolitano: Feds lack expertise to deal with deepwater spill

WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledged Monday that the federal government doesn't have the resources or expertise to deal with an oil spill 5,000 feet below the sea, and must largely depend on oil companies to deal with an incident of such magnitude.

Napolitano, the first Cabinet-level official to testify to Congress about the April 20 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, also said there may have been too much reliance by the industry on blowout preventers as a fail-safe in the event of a catastrophe. There was perhaps not enough regulation or testing of the devices by the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service.

“I think that's one of the reasons why the president has been so very clear that further deepwater drilling permits are going to be stopped until this can be investigated and assurances can be gained that things have been changed so that we don't have a duplication of the deepwater Horizon incident,” Napolitano said. “And so I think we're all working together to say, ‘All right, what happened here? What power should MMS have had that it didn't have? What powers did it have that it didn't exercise?”

In recent weeks, MMS has been criticized for its cozy ties to industry, including writing many of the safety and environmental rules for offshore drilling. An environmental group on Monday filed suit against the agency, saying that MMS failed to equire a thorough examination of spill risks from exploratory drilling operations like the Deepwater Horizon.

Already, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced a reorganization of the agency, the Minerals Management Service, and Monday, the official who oversees offshore drilling for the Minerals Management Service, Chris Coyne, announced his retirement, effective May 31.

Still, Napolitano told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs that she was proud of the federal response to the incident despite its limited capability and expertise. “From the point of view of the explosion and spill, there have been extensive plans under the national response framework,” Napolitano said. “Those plans not only exist but are exercised on a regular basis.”

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn, said, however, that those plan were not adequate for deepwater disasters.

“It angers me,” Lieberman said that as the country become more dependent on deepwater drilling, MMS didn’t develop better oversight of the potential environmental risks. He said both BP and MMS should have had better plans in place for a deepwater accident.

“As we watch the company, the government trying desperately to figure out how to close this well, to stop this spill in the Gulf, we obviously have to conclude that people weren’t prepared to deal with this,” he said. “I don’t see how our government can allow any new deep water wells to be permitted or drilled. And I say that with regret because I know how important offshore American oil is to our nation’s energy independence.”

Both Lieberman and the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said they were disappointed officials with the Minerals Management Service chose not to testify at the hearing.

Salazar will be testifying in front of two Senate panels Tuesday, including the Environment and Public Works Committee. Eight Democratic senators, led by the committee chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, called Monday on the Justice Department to investigate the spill. Napolitano on Monday reaffirmed the Obama administration’s commitment to hold BP accountable for the full cost of the spill.

Friday, Salazar and Napolitano wrote to BP chief executive Tony Hayward, saying BP is accountable for the “full clean up” of the spill and all related economic loss. They also asked that the company clarify what the company’s top U.S. exective, Lamar McKay, meant when he told the Senate the company would pay all “legitimate claims” above the cap.

BP is saying it will pay more than the statutory cap of $75 million requires – but just how much more will probably be a matter to be hashed out by lawyers.

In a response dated Sunday, Hayward said “we are prepared to pay about $75 million on these claims,” meaning claims under the Oil Pollution Act. The letter said BP would follow Coast Guard standards under the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and would honor claims by individuals and businesses that can substantiate them.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday, regarding BP’s response, that administration lawyers are “evaluating the response to their letter from a legal perspective” while seeking legislation to lift the economic damages cap retroactively.

James Garner, a New Orleans lawyer representing the United Commercial Fisherman’s Association, said BP’s pledge will only mean something “if they live up to it.”

“Define what legitimate means?” he said. “If they take an unreasonable position on what the definition is, then they’re not agreeing to anything.”

At Monday’s hearing, McKay said the company is doing “everything humanly possible to minimize the environmental and economic impacts” of the spill.

The company on Monday announced $70 million in tourism grants to Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said the money would be used to “spread the word that Florida’s beaches are clean, our fish are biting” and the state is “open for business.”

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