While the Obama administration called a time-out on new offshore oil and gas drilling a few weeks ago, they have so far allowed current drilling operations in the Gulf to continue. "We were not going to have those stopped mid-way," Interior secretary Ken Salazar told senators yesterday. But now a group of legislators is calling on Salazar to freeze BP's other big Gulf of Mexico drilling operation, the Atlantis rig, until federal regulators certify that it is operating safely.

Reuters reports that at least 17 Democratic lawmakers urged Salazar to shut down the rig in a letter sent Wednesday. Lawmakers first raised questions about the safety of the Atlantis in a letter to the Minerals Management Service back in February, noting that they had heard "disturbing reports" of safety lapses and warning of the "risk of a catastrophic accident." They cited whistleblower reports that the rig lacked "crucial engineering documents."

In this latest letter, the members write, "We urge MMS to listen to the expert engineer who reviewed the Atlantis situation and called for an immediate shutdown until it can be shown that this platform is operating safely." Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is the lead author on the missive.

The Atlantis operates even farther below the surface than the Deepwater Horizon, at a depth of 7,000 feet, and produces 200,000 barrels of oil per day. "We are very concerned that the tragedy at Deepwater Horizon could foreshadow an accident at BP Atlantis, which is operating in deeper water than Horizon," the House members write.

The group Food & Water Watch also filed a lawsuit this week seeking to force Salazar and MMS to shut down the Atlantis. "The Horizon oil spill was not a freak accident," says the group. "Strong evidence reveals that the Atlantis platform is a disaster waiting to happen, and other platforms may be operating unsafely too."

In Senate testimony on Tuesday, Salazar admitted that there have been lapses in oversight at MMS. He also said that there is "currently an investigation underway with respect to the Atlantis," though he did not elaborate.

BP has been skittish about letting the public see footage of the oil spill. We already know that the oil giant kept alarming video of the leak under wraps until senators demanded copies. But here's something even more problematic: yesterday, CBS shot this video of BP contractors and the Coast Guard chasing their news cameras away from an oil-slicked beach, supposedly at the behest of BP.

"These are BP's rules," one man on the boat tells the camera crew. "These are not our rules."

Why is BP calling the shots? This was a public beach. The camera crews have every right—and in fact an obligation—to show people what's going on. Why is the federal government running defense for BP?

As Karl Burkart writes over on Mother Nature Network, this isn’t the first account of reporters being barred from covering the spill. And as the environmental catastrophe continues to grow worse, "BP's federally subsidized media containment operation may soon become impossible to maintain."

UPDATE: The Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center, the unified command office set up to deal with the spill, issued a statement saying that there are no prohibitions on journalists in place, and that they have "reiterated" to personnel that media should have access to spill-impacted sites:

Neither BP nor the U.S. Coast Guard, who are responding to the spill, have any rules in place that would prohibit media access to impacted areas and we were disappointed to hear of this incident. In fact, media has been actively embedded and allowed to cover response efforts since this response began, with more than 400 embeds aboard boats and aircraft to date. Just today 16 members of the press observed clean-up operations on a vessel out of Venice, La.
The only time anyone would be asked to move from an area would be if there were safety concerns, or they were interfering with response operations. This did occur off South Pass Monday which may have caused the confusion reported by CBS today.
The entities involved in the Deepwater Horizon/BP Response have already reiterated these media access guidelines to personnel involved in the response and hope it prevents any future confusion.

Senators released several new terrifying videos of the well gushing oil into the Gulf yesterday. But the video below is perhaps the most shocking of all: footage of the spill site from Monday, May 17—the day after a pipe was inserted into the well to siphon a portion of the spill to the surface.

According to BP, the riser--a device that operates like a catheter--has allowed crews to capture 1,000 barrels of oil each day. That would be about one-fifth of the oil, if you believe BP's estimate of the total size of the spill. But many people don't think BP's estimate is accurate. Outside estimates range from 26,000 barrels per day to 71,400. If that's the case, siphoning off 1,000 barrels isn't really all that much. BP, mind you, refused to release images of the spill site for weeks, and only released this new round of videos yesterday under pressure from senators. The company has clearly tried to keep the public from seeing exactly what is going on in the Gulf.

BP plans to use a "junk shot" to plug the well this weekend, a method the company describes as choking off the flow of oil and natural gas by shooting debris down the well. This is the latest effort to stop the spill—after capping it failed twice. But if the junk shot fails, experts say it would take until August for BP to drill a relief well.

So if this is what the well looks like with the temporary fix in place, we could be in for months of spillage at an unknown (and likely very high) rate.

At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar essentially agreed with Republican opponents of a bill to raise the liability cap for oil spills to $10 billion, arguing that it would keep smaller companies out of the drilling business.

But on Tuesday afternoon, after two failed attempts to pass the measure, President Barack Obama issued a statement calling on the Senate to approve the $10 billion cap—leaving some of us (or at least, me) wondering what the administration actually thinks about the issue.

Here's Obama's statement:

I am disappointed that an effort to ensure that oil companies pay fully for disasters they cause has stalled in the United States Senate on a partisan basis. This maneuver threatens to leave taxpayers, rather than the oil companies, on the hook for future disasters like the BP oil spill. I urge the Senate Republicans to stop playing special interest politics and join in a bipartisan effort to protect taxpayers and demand accountability from the oil companies.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters that he doesn't think there should be any cap on payouts, in light of the fact that the estimates on the BP spill are already as high as $14 billion (and climbing).

So what, if any, limit should Congress set on how much BP and other oil companies have to pay out in the event of a spill? Some clear direction from leadership might help the process.

BP has released new video of the oil spill site, which looks much worse than previously released footage. The images seem to lend more credence to reports that the spill rate is much higher than BP has claimed. The new images came after pressure from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who released the 5-minute video today.

Democrats tried again this morning to bring up their "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act," a measure that would raise the liability cap for major oil spills from $75 million to $10 billion. And once again, that effort was shot down by Republicans—this time by the Senate's climate-change-denier-in-chief, Oklahoma's James Inhofe.

In blocking the measure, Inhofe made the same argument that Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski made last week. The two Republicans worry that a $10 billion cap would bar small players from entering the offshore drilling business. Inhofe also made sure to include some scare-mongering about China and Venezuela for good measure. Yep, that's Inhofe—always looking out for the underdogs:

Big oil would love to have these caps up there so they can shut out all the independents. Now we have independents, my state of Oklahoma, and right now 63 percent of the Gulf's natural gas and 36 percent of its oil are produced by independents. Now what you do if you raise the caps right now precipitously to this high, you will help the five big oil companies, including BP, give them exclusive rights, you help the nationalized oil companies such as those in China and Venezuela.

Unfortunately for supporters of raising the damage cap, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gave Inhofe and Murkowski's obstruction a boost on Tuesday. While Salazar maintained the Obama administration's position that the cap should be raised, he indicated that $10 billion is too high (despite the fact that the Gulf spill is already on course to exceed that figure). "You don’t want only the BPs of the world to be involved in these operations," said Salazar. He said that the administration "will work with you and other members of Congress to get to a number that makes sense."

Robert Menendez (D-NJ), a co-sponsor of the bill to raise the cap, balked at Salazar's suggestion. "That simply means if you're smaller you can get away with taking the same risk and having less liability."

Congressional hearings on the Deepwater Horizon spill continue today, with today's panels focusing primarily on the government's role in both the spill and the clean-up effort. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will appear before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee at 11 a.m., along with several other representatives of the government's oil spill response team.

The Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a second hearing at 2:30 p.m. featuring Salazar, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and head of the Council on Environmental Quality Nancy Sutley. A second panel will include representatives from the Coast Guard, Army, and Department of Commerce.

Also at 2:30, the Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation will hear from Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco, BP America President Lamar McKay, and Transocean President Steven Newman.

I'll be live-tweeting from the hearings all day, which you can follow below.

Yet another Senate Committee has launched a probe into the catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with some new questions about angles that have yet to be explored in the incident. On Monday, the Senate Finance Committee sent inquiries to the heads of the three oil and oil service companies involved with the rig and to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The committee's questions focus both about what happened on the night the rig exploded, and what regulations the rig may have skirted.

A few lines of questioning that are new in the letter from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa): the committee wants to know why the Deepwater Horizon was operating under the flag of the Marshall Islands, as has been reported, and whether that may have been used to avoid US regulations. The letter also asks for a list of all other BP rigs flying under the flags of foreign countries. Grassley also asks for records of "all tax breaks and/or subsidies" that Transocean and BP may have received for the Deepwater operation.

There's also this bit, which may yield some interesting information about the White House's relationship with BP:

Also, I have learned that BP sent a letter dated April 9, 2010 to the White House Council on Environmental Quality regarding offshore oil drilling. I would like to more information about BP’s contact with the White House on this matter.

Grassley sent a separate letter to Salazar asking for more information about the oversight from Minerals Management Services (or lack thereof).

Here's the letter to BP, the letter to Halliburton, the letter to Transocean, and the letter to Salazar.

I was on Hardball with Chris Matthews tonight discussing the BP spill and who should take the lion's share of the blame–BP or the US government. Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica was also featured in the segment.

A day after blocking an effort to raise the cap on liability for major oil spills, Lisa Murkowski issued a reminder that she still has another bailout bill for major polluters in her back pocket.

Murkowski's office released a statement Friday afternoon reminding reporters that the Alaska Republican still has a resolution of disapproval in reserve. Murkowski is seeking to use the disapproval resolution, a rarely-used procedural maneuver that enables Congress to overturn regulations set by the executive branch, to block the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. She can attempt to pass the resolution anytime between now and June 7.

Murkowski's threat comes after a week in which Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) finally released their climate and energy bill, a measure that faces an uncertain future in the Senate. It also comes shortly after the EPA issued a final rule that would guide the introduction of new carbon dioxide regulations, limiting the initial phase of regulations to only the biggest polluters.

Despite her continued insistence that she cares about addressing climate change, Murkowski has been at the forefront of efforts to block the EPA from regulating planet-warming emissions.

Murkowski's office says she has not yet decided on a date to call up her resolution of disapproval, but that she "will seek that vote by the June 7 deadline." So far, her measure has the support of 35 Republicans and four Democrats. It needs only 51 votes to pass.