Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu grills Salazar on offshore drilling

Amanda Carey Contributor
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The tables were turned on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Wednesday morning when he faced tough questioning from the very committee he sat on as a Democratic senator from Colorado. The hearing with the Senate Natural Resources Committee was intended be give Salazar an opportunity to defend his agency’s budget requests. But Salazar spent more time defending his position on oil drilling.

Salazar repeated the same defenses over and over again (containment systems are still a “work in progress,” and he wants to move ahead with a “safe ocean program”) while committee members took turns grilling him about offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We are in a post-Mocando Well situation,” said Salazar. “Earlier on, when we imposed the moratorium, it was the correct thing to do in my point of view.”

The secretary faced the most scorn from Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who has been a staunch opponent of the Obama administration’s stance on drilling after the BP oil spill last spring.

During Wednesday’s hearing, the senator asked Salazar point-blank how he planned to begin issuing more drilling permits, criticized him for creating uncertainty in the oil industry and scolded him on his agency’s message after the first permit was issued earlier this week.

Landrieu showed clear frustration with questions like: “What are you specifically doing to get these permits increased so people can get back to work?”

And: “Eighteen deep-water permits have been applied for … and you have issued one. And the industry is saying, ‘They’re returning them to us because we are not sure of the requirements they are requesting of us.’”

“What I [am] hearing from the industry is uncertainty,” she said. “In January 2009 there were 16 permits issued. The next year there were 12 and this January, only two. We’re so far off the historic level. We’ve got to get it back up as quickly as possible.”

Salazar said little in his response that seemed to satisfy the Louisiana senator. He pointed out that the delay in issuing permits was due to the industry’s “lack of preparedness” to respond to another BP-like crisis, and that the well containment system was just completed last week.

“I understand you have to look at each individual permit … but if this equipment is sufficient, you could give a more positive statement like, ‘We anticipate no problem with applications,’ as opposed to taking it well by well,” responded Landrieu.

“I hope, Mr. Secretary, that you would take that as some constructive criticism.”