Sen. Murkowski’s Opening Statement on the Government’s Response to Deepwater Horizon Tragedy

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced for the record the following opening statement today in the energy committee's hearing on the nation's readiness to respond to offshore oil spills:

"Good morning, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for convening this hearing.

"It's now been 29 days since the Deepwater Horizon exploded after what may have been a catastrophic well failure followed by an equally catastrophic failure of the blowout preventer. As containment and recovery efforts continue with very limited success, the resulting spill is threatening much of the Gulf Coast and countless livelihoods.

"Secretary Salazar, you are very welcome here today to help this committee gather answers and understand how this happened and whether the process leading up to it included failures of its own. Central to our discussion is the Minerals Management Service, the MMS, which is charged with managing and overseeing the resources of America's vast offshore resources while at the same time analyzing and enforcing a wide variety of environmental considerations.

"So far, the Interior Department has announced new ethical standards for MMS, a termination of the Royalty-in Kind program, canceled leases in three different scheduled areas in Alaska, and now we are looking at a proposal to cut the entire MMS in two. One arm would handle inspection, enforcement, and investigation while the other would handle leasing, permitting, and royalty collection.

"It does seem logical at an elementary level that an agency might feel conflicted when it is responsible for both collecting revenues and taking actions that can effectively halt or slow those revenues. As an agency, MMS collects many billions of dollars for the federal treasury each year from oil and gas royalties and bids from companies hoping to develop our federal resources. These resources belong to the American people - not to any of us in the government and not to any corporation or interest group. So the American people rightly charge us with a difficult order: to benefit from all of their resources at once, even as the use of some resources can impact others.

"If MMS is to be restructured and cut in two, there will have to be reprogramming of funds through the appropriations process, which we'll see about in the Appropriations Committee. Here on Energy and Natural Resources, our focus needs to be on organic acts for the two agencies as well as extending our provision in S. 1462, the American Clean Energy and Leadership Act, to make the Director of the MMS a Senate-confirmed position. If the current MMS is going to be reshaped into two independent agencies, it's only logical that we'd apply that confirmation requirement to both of their Directors.

"Deepwater Horizon is emerging as the reason why the Interior Department has such a difficult job in striking this balance. But that is what we need to pursue today - an understanding of how the Interior Department can rise from this tragic spill stronger and more confident in its ability to deliver Americans their resources in safer and more environmentally responsible ways.

"To gain that understanding, there will be many tough questions today: questions about what MMS approved or didn't approve and why; questions about the deepwater program generally; and questions about how we can be forward thinking as the reach of our technological limits continues to expand. We need a constructive dialogue about keeping spill prevention and containment at levels where they're not only commensurate with exploration in terms of effectiveness and technology, but to where they are tested in the environments in which they might be deployed. Much is being learned the hard way as we speak.

"And on the subject of testing, there should be an opportunity to hear about why so many equipment and well testing regimes - positive and negative tests of the well's cement, tests on shear rams, even evacuation drills - seem to have fallen short. We need to learn more about whether these tests only pay lip service to risk or if they produce tangible and actionable evidence of a system's integrities and weaknesses. As I said last week and many times before, there are words and then there are actions. Actions have consequences and if regulations were ignored or broken, there will be no excuse. We have strong environmental laws in our nation - the strongest in the world in many ways - but we can't cite that as a reason why we produce energy the right way if those laws aren't objectively enforced.

"At this time it's important to remember that this Administration, led by the President and Secretary Salazar, have come out in agreement with the vast majority of Americans that some amount of increased offshore drilling is going to be necessary for our energy security until new technologies can replace oil as the overwhelming fuel for the world's automobiles, aircraft, and shipping. Oil from federal lands continues to be the second largest revenue generator for the federal government after taxes, and as the Interior Department delivers those revenues to the Treasury, we cannot ignore that benefit in this period of unprecedented national debt.

"Finally, in light of the events on the Senate floor late last week, I would remind my colleagues that we should be focusing on solving problems in a bipartisan manner, not making them worse. I would hate to see the public relations campaign to assign blame for the spill become a higher priority than actual response efforts.

"The Deepwater Horizon spill has gone on long enough to where it is beginning to teach us things about where the system may have failed and where it may be working. So it is not necessarily premature to be making some important changes to reflect what we've seen so far. But it is important that we make those changes under a process. Hearings like this one, debate, markups, floor time, and deliberation are all ingredients that lend themselves to passage of strong bipartisan legislation that can minimize unintended consequences. Secretary Salazar, you already had a hard job as essentially landlord of public lands in the United States. In the past month your job has become enormously more difficult, and each day this spill continues, that difficulty increases. So you are welcome before this committee today to identify ways in which we can help.

"Thank you Mr. Chairman."

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