Is Secretary Salazar Above the Law?

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Ken SalazarInterior Secretary Ken Salazar appears today before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He will hopefully answer questions about his refusal to allow deepwater drilling to resume in the Gulf of Mexico, despite a federal judge twice ruling that the moratorium is illegal.

The BP oil spill was a disaster, but not as big of a disaster as the moratorium that followed. The granting of exactly one drilling permit to Noble Energy this week underscores just how cynical and politicized Salazar's response has been. Last week, Salazar said that he would not bow to "political pressure" to restart drilling, standing reality on its head.

It was "political pressure" that resulted in the moratorium. The administration happily acquiesced to activists who wanted to stop offshore drilling even before BP blowout. The presidential commission, stacked with such activists, attempted to indict the entire oil and gas exploration and production industry when a now-overwhelming body of evidence points to BP as the bad actor.  Although it was underreported by the media, this industry-wide indictment was badly undercut by the commission's own Chief Counsel Fred Bartlit on February 17.  He issued his own report that fingered BP.

If Salazar will not bow to what he calls "political pressure," he should at least bow to a federal judge's order to restart the permitting process.

Below is the text of a letter sent by NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm to the Energy Committee:

Dear Committee Members:

Although the Interior Department recently issued the first deepwater drilling permit in over 10 months after shutting down the Gulf of Mexico to energy exploration and development following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it's not enough. With the nation recovering from a recession, our federal government facing a massive deficit, gasoline prices on the rise, and an unemployment rate over 9 percent, policymakers must do more.

The recent Oil Spill Commission Chief Counsel's report illustrates that the problems aboard the doomed rig were caused by poor management on the part of one company, BP, and not a problem with the entire industry. A federal judge even declared the blanket moratorium unconstitutional in June, yet the costly and unnecessary delay on permitting continues.

Interior Department Secretary Kenneth Salazar will meet with Congressional committees this week to discuss the department's budget, and make the case for receiving greater funding. Considering the substantial funding the agency has kept from entering government coffers with ongoing permitting delays, such requests seem a bit ironic.

The decision to not issue permits has cost the Gulf region more than 20,000 jobs and close to $10 billion in government revenue from mineral rights and taxes.

We need the Interior Department to immediately end its "permitorium" and allow the Gulf to get back to work. Lease sales to expand offshore energy production could bring in $61 billion right now, and lead to the creation of 250,000 jobs and $500 billion in economic activity. Instead of pursuing these pro-growth policies, this agency has instead chosen to stifle economic growth, ignore numerous rulings from a federal judge, and deny revenue and growth for the entire country. All in response to an isolated and, as the Oil Spill Commission report said, a "completely preventable disaster."

Specifically, the Commission's chief counsel Fred Bartlit, in his report said BP's mismanagement of the Deepwater Horizon project, and not an overarching problem with the entire industry, led to the April 20th disaster. From an incoherent chain of command, a failure to appreciate the gravity of the situation, and an inability to properly analyze important tests, BP's management team was wholly insufficient for offshore drilling. Email traffic indicates that clear concerns with the well were not taken seriously, or properly addressed by management; with one person going so far as to dismiss concerns by writing, "I'll be back soon and we can talk, we're dancing to the Village People!"

Instead of punishing the company responsible for the spill, current Interior Department policies are punishing a whole industry.

And, unfortunately, the economic fallout goes beyond the oil and gas industry.

Thousands of small businesses supported by offshore energy production both directly and indirectly are being negatively affected by the permitting delay. Additionally, increased domestic energy prices as a result of supply concerns in countries like Egypt and Libya are magnifying the effects of the halt to gulf energy production, and hitting the wallets of every American family.

As the Interior Department makes its case for additional funding, it is important to consider the misguided agency policies that have contributed to the lingering recession, high fuel prices, lost jobs, and massive revenue shortfalls for all levels of government.

Policymakers should ask Interior Department officials, including Secretary Salazar, what are they doing to help our economy and get the Gulf back to work.