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Interior secretary defends offshore-drilling permit changes

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday defended his agency's changes in the year after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, dismissing criticism of a lengthier and more extensive permitting process as mere "Washington noise."

Appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Salazar stressed that the U.S. is committed to offshore oil and gas development when it's done safely.

A plan to streamline the permitting process, championed by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, got the backing last week of President Barack Obama, who called Saturday in his weekly radio address for easing the way for more domestic oil and gas production, particularly in the offshore Arctic and National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Begich and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are pushing for increased offshore production in the Arctic as a source of oil that will keep the trans-Alaska pipeline running. Alaska's senators have been meeting repeatedly with the president and White House officials in recent months to find ways to cut through red tape to move projects forward in the state.

"The past year has been evidence that (streamlining the permitting process) is needed now more than ever," Begich told the committee Tuesday. "I was glad to hear the president talking about ... the need to coordinate between the many different federal agencies."

Murkowski told Salazar that she remains concerned that the U.S. is about one-third of the way toward the levels in new exploration and production that existed when the administration imposed an offshore drilling moratorium after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20, 2010, and the subsequent oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

"It should be our goal to ensure our offshore industry is working safely," she said. "But that requires that it be working."

But Salazar pointed out that until a few months ago, he and the director of the new agency that oversees offshore drilling, Michael Bromwich, weren't confident in the well-containment systems being developed by oil companies.

When they were confident, they started issuing permits again, Bromwich said. Since then, permits for 14 deepwater wells have been issued. Another 53 have been granted in shallow waters since last June, Bromwich said.

"We couldn't really grant deepwater permits until there was containment capability," said Bromwich, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. "That didn't happen until February. The notion that it's taken us a very long time to permit deepwater applications is really not true."

Both men also took issue with legislation passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives and being considered by the Senate that shortens the time that federal regulators have to consider applications to drill. That legislation, Salazar said, would "pull out the rug from what it is we're trying to do: safe development of oil and gas in America's oceans."

That doesn't mean the transparency of the process — keeping applicants informed of the status of their permits — can't be improved, Bromwich said.

But oil companies also must recognize that there's a new regulatory regime, Salazar said. Although he told the committee his department has a "good relationship with industry," it "doesn't mean we should be dictated" to about standards, a reference to accusations that before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil and gas interests were too cozy with the Interior Department's old Minerals Management Service.

"Obviously, there's tremendous expertise that we listen to," he said of industry advisory groups. "But at the end of the day, it's our independent judgment that has to come to bear on these recommendations."


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