WASHINGTON — Seizing on the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, Sen. Bill Nelson asked Monday for a rare joint Senate committee investigation into safety claims made by the oil industry.
The request — made along with New Jersey Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez, who like Nelson oppose oil and gas drilling off their states’ coast — comes as authorities monitored the Gulf spill and tried to use underwater equipment to cap the leak.
“The explosion, ensuing fire and continuing spill raise serious concerns about the industry’s claims that their operations and technology are safe enough to put rigs in areas that are environmentally sensitive or are critical to tourism or fishing industries,” the three senators said in a letter to the chairs of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation and Energy and Natural Resources committees.
Nelson last week wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, asking for an investigation into all U.S. drilling accidents over at least the past decade. He also wants a congressional investigation by the Senate Commerce Committee, on which he serves.
The spill comes just weeks after President Barack Obama outlined plans to lift a ban on drilling along the Outer Continental Shelf and expand offshore oil and gas drilling to within 125 miles of Florida’s coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. The administration’s plan would also open the Atlantic coast from Delaware to Florida and Lautenberg and Menendez said last week they hoped the explosion would “give the administration and our fellow members of Congress pause in their effort to expand oil drilling. The bottom line is that when you drill for oil, there is always a risk that not only puts lives on the line, but a risk that puts miles of coastline and the economy on the line as well,” they said.
The administration’s plan has split Florida’s once-unified congressional delegation with several members, including Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, writing to President Obama to oppose the move.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Monday that stopping the leak and preventing the spill from reaching shore was the White House’s priority, but said that as the administration looks to expand drilling, “a whole host of issues like whether it’s environmentally feasible will be looked at.”
Asked about whether the spill makes opening the Atlantic coast less environmentally safe, Gibbs said it had to be balanced “on a whole host of things, like what’s the impact of getting more oil from dangerous parts of the world?”