Deepwater Horizon hearings showcase safety debate

Hearings on the Deepwater Horizon disaster have showcased the contentious debate brewing on the safety of offshore oil drilling.

The House Natural Resources Committee hosted two of a scheduled seven hearings investigating the April 20 oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana. Eleven workers were killed in the blast, and the resultant oil spill is likely to be the worst in U.S. history.

During one hearing, BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay stressed (.pdf file) that his company views employee safety as a top priority, but put responsibility for the safe operation on Transocean Ltd. BP is a lease holder and operator of the exploration well, and Transocean conducted the well drilling operations and owned the rig.

Transocean CEO Steven Newman likewise testified (.pdf file) that worker safety comes first and touted the company's safety record, including safety prizes awarded by the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service, which enforces rig safety.

But Michael F. Hirshfield, senior vice president for North America of the Washington-based global ocean conservation group Oceana, claimed the oil industry cannot guarantee the safe operation of offshore drilling, which he called "dirty and dangerous."

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