Snap judgment at oil spill hearing could lead to disaster of its own

Last Friday I traveled to the Gulf Coast area affected by the oil spill caused by the April 20 explosion on the ultra-deep-water exploratory oil rig, Deepwater Horizon. The most dreadful consequence of this tragedy is the loss of life—of the 126 men and women on board the rig, 11 perished. Oil is now leaking into the Gulf at rates currently estimated at 5,000 barrels per day, and thousands of men and women have been working around the clock to get the spill under control.

While in Louisiana, our delegation received a briefing from Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry at Unified Area Command, and we also met with representatives from the Department of the Interior, Minerals Management Service (MMS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, local officials, affected industries and response teams.

What was most readily apparent was the seamless cooperation between all of the entities involved, including BP. While many politicians in Washington have turned this tragedy into an opportunity to push their own agendas, the men and women directly involved with the situation are working collaboratively to correct the problem and protect their communities and the environment.

Today the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations (O&I), of which I am the ranking member, will hold a hearing to look into the cause of the explosion and subsequent spill. While I believe in strong oversight—it is one of the most basic responsibilities of government—I can’t help but wonder if this hearing was called prematurely.

The cause of the explosion is not yet known, as well as other critical information, such as why there was a leak in the pipe and why the blowout preventer did not work. Furthermore, a substantial number of questions remain as to the federal government’s role in the explosion. The Department of Interior’s MMS is responsible for permitting, regulating, and inspecting oil rigs, like the Deepwater Horizon, operating in federal waters. Reports suggest the MMS inspected the rig as recently as April 1, finding no safety violations.

For these reasons, I requested that Interior Secretary Salazar accompany the oil executives and explain to Congress what his agency’s role in federal permitting and inspecting is, and how a rig with zero violations could fall to the Gulf floor less than one month later. At past O&I subcommittee hearings concerning Toyota and crib safety, Members had the opportunity to ask questions of the federal official from the agency of jurisdiction, and I don’t see why today’s hearing should be any different.

While I look forward to questioning the company executives on their preparation for ultra-deep-water oil exploration, I want to also caution against making sweeping judgments and rushing to unrealistic conclusions about what America’s future energy policies should be, in light of this tragedy. Congress has a long history of overreacting to public tragedies with hasty legislation that—months or years later—we realize has unintended consequences (the latest health care reform law will no doubt fall into this category).

For over 50 years, offshore drilling in the Gulf has been a well-engineered operation, with a remarkably good record overall, until this spill. In recent years, the bulk of new production has come from deep-sea operations, with exploratory and production wells developed at depths equal to or substantially greater than the 5,000 foot depth of the Deepwater Horizon—all without serious incidents.