The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee kicks off the new year and the new congressional session with a hearing Jan. 26 on the findings and recommendations of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, which released its report earlier this month.

The commission’s two co-chairs, former EPA chief William K. Reilly and Bob Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida, will testify. One can expect that committee chair Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will be keenly interested to hear what they have to say, and may use the commission’s recommendations as a launching point for new energy legislation.

Among the commission’s recommendations were that the penalties paid by BP and other responsible parties should go primarily toward Gulf restoration, and that Congress should dedicate 80% of any Clean Water Act civil and criminal penalties to long-term restoration of the Gulf of Mexico in partnership with the states. Both of those measures, if enacted, would give a welcome boost to the Gulf cleanup effort.

Several of the commission’s recommendations called for the restructuring of the Interior Dept.'s former Minerals Management Service, now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). Although Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will not be testifying at the hearing, he announced on Jan. 19 that he and BOEMRE’s director, Michael Bromwich, had taken steps to divide the troubled agency into three distinct entities.

 The reorganization will split up the three primary functions of leasing, revenue collection and enforcement of safety and environmental regulations at BOEMRE.

 The revenue-collection arm was separated out into the Office of Natural Resources Revenue on Oct. 1, 2010.

The other two functions will fall under the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) for leasing and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis; and the new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) for the enforcement of safety and environmental regulations. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he hopes to have the changes in place by Oct. 1. Bromwich will oversee the reorganization.

 Additionally, Salazar and Bromwich say they will establish a permanent advisory body made up of the nation’s leading scientific, engineering and technical experts to provide input on improving offshore drilling safety, well containment, and spill response. Tom Hunter, former Sandia National Laboratory Director, will lead the advisory committee. The Interior Dept. is accepting nominations for individuals to serve on the committee.

 Salazar says these reforms are closely aligned with the recommendations of the presidential commission.  “We are moving ahead quickly and responsibly to establish the strong, independent oversight of offshore oil and gas drilling that is needed to ensure that companies are operating safely and in compliance with the law,” Secretary Salazar told reporters.

The Senate hearing, which begins at 9:30 a.m., will be webcast live from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s website.