WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Monday indicated that the federal government and BP PLC were unprepared to deal with the type of massive oil spill occurring now in the Gulf of Mexico.
At a hearing focused on the specific plans developed by both the federal government and BP to respond to a deep water blow out, Lieberman said new permits for deep water drilling should be put on hold until better response plans can be developed.

“Oil companies are all doing a lot more deep water drilling than they used to, and we are all benefiting,” Lieberman said. “But that they have gone ahead and done this without proper preparation has led directly to the human, environmental, and economic catastrophe we are witnessing in the Gulf today.

“As far as I can tell, BP’s response plans, filed and approved by the federal government, don’t effectively deal with the enormous accumulation of oil under water now in the Gulf. And perhaps most important, in the approved BP response plans, there appears to be total reliance on the blowout preventer, and no plans filed for what to do to control and stop a spill if a blowout preventer fails in deep water, as it did in the current case.

“I don’t see how our government can allow any new deep water wells to be permitted and drilled until companies have plans in place to address these challenges,” Lieberman continued. “I say that with regret because I know how important offshore American oil is to our nation’s energy independence. But the U.S. government has a responsibility to protect the public safety that is more important, and that responsibility, I fear, was not fulfilled in this case.”

Senator Collins said: “Despite recent successful efforts to siphon off a portion of the oil spewing from the broken pipe, the waters of the Gulf are slowly becoming a sea of crude oil. The expanding plume is menacing the fragile ecosystems in the Gulf, potentially damaging a vast array of sea life, the environment, and the futures of Americans who live and work along the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of federal officials, Coast Guard personnel, scientists, engineers, and officials from British Petroleum search for solutions to fix the urgent problem: How do we turn off this faucet of oil that is stuck open, nearly a mile under the water?”

In light of the heavy reliance on the Coast Guard to respond to the oil spill emergency, Senator Collins also urged the Administration to reconsider planned budget cuts. “With the Administration’s proposed $75 million cut to the Coast Guard’s budget, it is questionable whether the Coast Guard can maintain sufficient capabilities to respond to this and future disasters, along with performing its myriad other missions,” she said. “Surely, this catastrophe should prompt the Administration to reconsider that ill-conceived budget cut.”

Oil companies’ response plans to deal with oil spills from wells are filed with the Minerals Management Service (MMS), within the Department of Interior. Oil companies must file response plans with the Coast Guard within the Department of Homeland Security, for spills from drilling vessels or rigs.

Senators Lieberman and Collins both criticized MMS’ refusal to testify at the hearing.

BP America President Lamar McKay conceded that the company’s response plans did not include how to deal with the current situation where the blowout preventer failed and the pipeline connecting the surface-level oil rig to the well cap 5,000 feet below sea level is lying on the sea floor.

“We owe it to the American people to learn from this catastrophe not only so that we can do everything we can to prevent anything like it from happening again but so that we can guarantee that if it does happen again, the oil companies and the government will not be left to scurry about trying to figure out how to stop the oil gushing into the Gulf, like firefighters trying to extinguish fires already consuming a neighborhood,” Lieberman said. “Instead, they will have learned lessons from this spill and will be much better prepared to respond.”

Also testifying at the hearing was Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Peter Neffenger, the Deputy Incident Commander.