WASHINGTON (AP) " Grilled by skeptical lawmakers, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday acknowledged his agency had been lax in overseeing offshore drilling activities and that may have contributed to the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"There will be tremendous lessons to be learned here," Salazar told a Senate panel in his first appearance before Congress since the April 20 blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.
His appearances before two of the three Senate panels holding hearings Tuesday on the giant oil spill came as the federal officials kept a wary eye on the expanding dimensions of the problem. The government increased the area of the Gulf where fishing is shut down to 46,000 square miles, or about 19 percent of federal waters. That's up from about 7 percent before.
Government scientists were anxiously surveying the Gulf to determine if the oil had entered a powerful current that could take it to Florida and eventually up the East Coast. Tar balls that washed up on Florida's Key West were shipped to a Coast Guard laboratory in Connecticut to determine if they came from the Gulf spill.
New underwater video released by BP PLC, the oil giant that owns a majority interest in the blown well, showed oil and gas erupting under pressure in large, dark clouds from its crippled blowout preventer safety device on the ocean floor. The leaks resembled a geyser on land. The five-minute clip apparently was recorded late Saturday and Sunday afternoon from aboard a remotely operated submarine.
Salazar, testifying before the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, promised an overhaul of federal regulations and said blame for the BP spill rests with both industry and the government, particularly his agency's Minerals Management Service.
"We need to clean up that house," Salazar said of the service. While most of the agency's 1,700 employees are reliable and trustworthy, he said, there were "a few bad apples."
President Barack Obama, who has decried the "cozy relationship" between government regulators and the energy industry, has proposed splitting the agency into two parts to separate regulatory duties from those who collect royalty fees from oil and gas companies.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the committee chairman, said the panel's mission was to decipher "the cascade of failures that caused the catastrophic blowout." In addition, he said, Congress needs to figure what must be done to make sure it never happens again.
While the cause of the accident at the well has yet to be pinpointed, information uncovered so far raises the question of where the Minerals Management Service was, Bingaman said.
"It is long past time to drain the safety and environmental swamp that is MMS," declared Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "This agency has been in denial about safety problems for years."
Wyden said it was time for the government to "play catch-up ball in a hurry."
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., pointed to an AP investigation's findings that the rig that exploded was allowed to operate "without safety documentation required by government regulations."
BP said Tuesday it was collecting about 84,000 gallons a day from a mile-long tube drawing oil from the blown-out well to a ship on the surface. But it cautioned that increasing the flow through the tube would be difficult.
"This remains a new technology and both its continued operation and its effectiveness in capturing the oil and gas remain uncertain," BP said in a statement.
Salazar denied reports that MMS had approved a number of new oil drilling applications in deep waters of the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill. He said no new deep water drilling has begun since April 20, and no wells will be drilled until a safety report is completed on the BP spill later this month.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told the committee that about a dozen applications were approved after April 20, but were suspended on May 6 before work began.
Obama plans to establish a presidential commission to look into the disaster, modeled on those for the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
Salazar cautioned against overreaction, noting that the Gulf waters produce nearly a third of the nation's oil. He said the Challenger disaster delayed the space program for 2 1/2 years and Three Mile Island "shut down the nuclear industry for 30 years."
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, expressed hope "we don't pull back."
"The country made a very serious mistake following Three Mile Island by pulling back with respect to nuclear power," Bennett said.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said an executive order on the presidential commission would come out soon, possibly this week.
Burton was asked about increasingly sharp congressional rhetoric toward BP, given that the administration must work with BP in the cleanup.
"Well, our view is that we didn't choose any partner for this catastrophe," Burton said. "What we've done is worked with the responsible party to do everything we can to stop oil from leaking from the bottom of the Gulf and to mitigate the environmental disaster that we're seeing in the water right now."
Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Tuesday that aerial surveys show some tendrils of light oil close to or already in the loop current, which circulates in the Gulf and takes water south to the Florida Keys and the Gulf Stream. But most oil is dozens of miles away from the current.
Lubchenco said it will take about eight to 10 days after oil enters the current before it begins to reach Florida.
However, researchers at the University of South Florida in Tampa suggested oil from the spill could reach the Florida keys as early as Sunday.
Meanwhile, federal officials said 189 dead sea turtles, birds and other animals have been found along Gulf coastlines since the oil spill started. Officials said they don't know how many were killed by oil or chemical dispersants. Barbara Schroeder of NOAA's fisheries program said necropsies have not detected oil in the bodies of the sea turtles.
Acting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Rowan Gould says the spill's effects could be felt for decades and may never be fully known because so many affected creatures live far offshore.
AP writers Ben Evans, Matthew Daly, and Tom Raum in Washington, Jeffrey Collins in Hammond, La., Matt Sedensky in Miami and John Flesher in New Orleans contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.