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Salazar defends 'pause button' on deepwater drilling

By Ed Hornick, CNN
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Interior secretary details 'pause button' on drilling
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testifies on increased safety regulations before Senate panel
  • Salazar defends Obama administration's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling
  • "It was our view that we press the pause button ... not the stop button," Salazar says
  • Salazar also lays out process of dismantling the Minerals Management Service
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Washington (CNN) -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday defended the Obama administration's six-month federal moratorium on deepwater drilling, which has come under fire from critics who argue that seeking offshore oil is vital for reducing the dependence on foreign supplies.

Speaking before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Salazar said the moratorium was necessary so "as we move forward with any kind of deepwater operation, that we can assure the American public and we can assure that everyone who was watching that in fact it can move forward in a safe way."

The moratorium comes as President Obama's oil spill commission investigates what caused the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion April 20. Its report is due in six months.

On Tuesday, the Department of Interior issued stronger safety requirements for offshore oil drilling, allowing operations in shallow water to continue but maintaining the federal moratorium on drilling in water deeper than 500 feet.

"Between now and then, it was our view that we press the pause button ... not the stop button," Salazar said. "It's a pause button so that we can make sure that we move forward with OCS [outer continental shelf] drilling -- that it can be done in a way that is protective of people and protective of the environment as well."

Salazar and Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said that indications from Energy Secretary Steven Chu and other government scientists are that the spill's flow rate increase -- after a cut of the well's riser pipe -- appears to have been between 4 percent to 5 percent. That's well below an increase of as much as 20 percent that administration officials had indicated could happen.

Salazar also said he was informed by BP that the vessel responsible for short-term containment is capturing 15,000 barrels of oil a day.

"At our insistence, they have moved forward with additional capacity to be able to capture additional amounts of oil and to make sure the redundancies are built in over time so at the end of the day, as much of the pollution as is leaking can be captured," he told senators.

The committee hearing was briefly interrupted by protesters. Diane Wilson, a commercial fisherwoman from Texas, poured an oil-like substance on herself as she was being led out of the room. Another protester held a sign that read "Murkowski=Big Oil," referring to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Anger and frustration over the spill has increased as more findings come out. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that support for offshore drilling has dropped significantly.

The poll, taken May 21-23, showed that 57 percent favor offshore drilling, down from 74 percent in 2008.

Read more about the poll

Also Wednesday, Salazar detailed the plan to dismantle the Minerals Management Service, which has come under fire for widespread corruption. The MMS will be split into three components.

The revenue collection arm, which had been under the direction of the assistant secretary for land and minerals management, is now under the watch of the assistant secretary of policy, management and budget.

The MMS collected nearly $10 billion in royalties from the energy and mining industries in 2009.

The remaining parts of the agency will be split into two bureaus: Ocean Energy Management and Safety and Environmental Compliance.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will have the responsibility for moving forward with lease sales and environmental analysis and making sure the resources in the outer continental shelf are being managed, Salazar said.

"This plan, in large part, reflects what has happened as well in places like the U.K. and Norway after horrific incidents," Salazar said, noting that they reorganized their departments.

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