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BP readies to plug source of oil gushing into Gulf

Report accuses US regulators of ethics lapses

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the report of alleged problems among regulators in Louisiana ‘deeply disturbing.’ Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the report of alleged problems among regulators in Louisiana ‘deeply disturbing.’
By Matthew Daly
Associated Press / May 26, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Marking five disastrous weeks, BP readied yet another attempt to slow the oil gushing into the Gulf yesterday as a federal report accused drilling regulators of having been so close to oil and gas companies that they accepted gifts and even negotiated to go work for them.

President Obama prepared to head to the Gulf on Friday to review efforts to halt the millions of gallons of contaminating crude, while scientists said underwater video of the leak showed the plume growing significantly darker, suggesting heavier, more-polluting oil is spewing out.

BP’s next effort to stop the damaged oil well, perhaps today, will be to force-feed heavy drilling mud and cement into the well to plug it up.

The tactic, called a “top kill,’’ has never been tried a mile beneath the sea, and company executives estimate its chances of success at 60 percent to 70 percent.

Also yesterday, in Jackson, Miss., 11 men who died in the April 20 rig explosion were honored at a somber memorial service with tributes from country music stars and drilling company executives.

Meanwhile, up to several thousand barrels of crude oil from the trans-Alaska pipeline spilled yesterday into a massive tank and overflowed into a containment area, shutting down the 800-mile line until the hazard is removed.

The spill happened during a scheduled pipeline shutdown at a pump station near Fort Greely, about 100 miles south of Fairbanks. Workers at the site evacuated. But no one was hurt, and the contamination should be limited to the gravel on top of the containment area’s liner, said Tom DeRuyter, on-scene spill coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

In Washington, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he has been laboring to root out problems at the agency that regulates offshore drilling. And the Justice Department said it will take all appropriate steps to ensure that those responsible for the disastrous blowout and oil spill are held accountable.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers continued feuding over a law that caps oil spill liability at $75 million for economic damages beyond direct cleanup costs. Democrats have tried to pass a bill raising the limit to $10 billion but have been blocked by Republicans.

A new report from the Interior Department’s acting inspector general found that an inspector for the Minerals Management Service, which oversees drilling, admitted using crystal methamphetamine and said he might have been under the influence of the drug at work.

The report cited a variety of violations of federal regulations and ethics rules at the agency’s Louisiana office.

Previous inspector general investigations have focused on inappropriate behavior by the royalty-collection staff in the agency’s Denver office.

The report adds to the climate of frustration and criticism facing the Obama administration, although it covers actions before the spill. Millions of gallons of oil are gushing into the Gulf, endangering wildlife and the livelihoods of fishermen, as scrutiny intensifies on a lax regulatory climate.

The Interior Department’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, said her report began as a routine investigation.

“Unfortunately, given the events of April 20 of this year, this report had become anything but routine, and I feel compelled to release it now,’’ she said.

Her biggest concern is the ease with which minerals agency employees move between industry and government, Kendall said. Although no specifics were included in the report, “we discovered that the individuals involved in the fraternizing and gift exchange — both government and industry — have often known one another since childhood,’’ Kendall said.

The report follows a 2008 report by Earl Devaney, Inspector General at the time, that decried a “culture of ethical failure’’ and conflicts of interest at the minerals agency, which is part of the Interior Department.

Salazar called the latest report “deeply disturbing’’ and said it highlights the need for changes he has proposed, including a plan to abolish the minerals agency and replace it with three new entities.

The report “is further evidence of the cozy relationship between some elements of MMS and the oil and gas industry,’’ Salazar said.

Several employees cited in the report have resigned, were fired or were referred for prosecution, he said, and actions might be taken against others as warranted.

The report covers activities between 2000 and 2008. Salazar said he has asked Kendall to expand her investigation to look into agency actions since he took office in January 2009.

The report said that employees from the Lake Charles, La., MMS office had repeatedly accepted gifts, including hunting and fishing trips from the Island Operating Company, an oil and gas company working on oil platforms regulated by the Interior Department.

Taking such gifts “appears to have been a generally accepted practice,’’ the report said.

Kendall recommended steps to improve ethical standards, including a two-year waiting period for agency employees to join the oil or gas industry.