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Salazar: U.S. doing all it can on oil spill

By Annalyn Censky, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reiterated Wednesday that the U.S. government is doing all it can to put an end to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and to enforce ethics requirements in the federal agency responsible for inspecting oil wells.

He also reiterated that the oil spill is causing President Obama to consider adjustments to his plan to open exploration wells for drilling in the Arctic.

The Interior Department faced criticism in a hearing before Congress Wednesday, two days after an inspector general report showed Minerals Management Service (MMS) inspectors took gifts from big oil companies, watched pornography and used crystal meth at work.

But in the hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, Salazar said he believes most of the bureau's 1,700 employees are "good public servants" and abide by ethics requirements put in place by the Obama administration. He said the department has "zero tolerance" for the ethical lapses, which he also called "reprehensible" and even "criminal."

"I would say, there are bad apples and those bad apples will be rooted out with every power that we have," he said.

Salazar's testimony occurred hours before BP (BP), the company responsible for the spill, attempted what it called a "top kill" procedure aimed at plugging the 37-day-old leak.

The hearing was the first of seven by the House Natural Resources Committee investigating the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and examining the future of America's offshore oil and gas policy. The committee oversees the country's offshore drilling policy and MMS, which collects about $13.7 billion per year in revenue from federal offshore and onshore drilling leases.

The discussion at the hearing bounced around as lawmakers questioned why the Interior Department wasn't better prepared for the Gulf Coast oil spill, and Salazar repeatedly criticized the previous administration of President George W. Bush for not keeping oil companies at a proper "arms length" from federal regulators.

"We've done a lot to clean the house at MMS," he said. "Unlike the prior administration, this is not the candy store of the oil and gas kingdom."

Salazar reiterated a proposal to break up MMS into three divisions, separating the agency's revenue collectors from the leasing and enforcement functions of the organization.

Asked several times whether the Gulf Coast oil spill will be a "game changer" for President Obama's plan to open new areas to offshore drilling, particularly off the coast of Alaska, Salazar said more questions need to be answered first, and lawmakers should "stay tuned" for the Interior Department's safety review he will deliver to the president on Thursday.

"There will be a series of decisions that will be made with respect to whatever adjustments need to be made," Salazar said. "And so stay tuned on your question relative to this specifics on the exploration wells approved in the Arctic."

In March, Obama announced plans to open up a few new areas for drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, off the East Coast and in Alaska. But the Interior Department suspended new applications for drilling permits after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig led to an environmental disaster. To top of page

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