By Ben Geman - 11/10/10 06:51 PM EST
The Interior Department’s acting inspector general, in new findings this week, said White House edits to a May Interior Department offshore safety report left the impression that outside engineers consulted on the study had endorsed a six-month ban on deepwater drilling. They hadn’t.
“After reviewing different drafts of the Executive Summary that were exchanged between DOI and the White House prior to its final issuance, the OIG determined that the White House edit of the original DOI draft Executive Summary led to the implication that the moratorium recommendation had been peer reviewed by the experts,” states the report by acting Inspector General Mary Kendall. (Acronym alert: DOI is Interior; OIG is the inspector general.)
Hastings is currently the Natural Resources Committee's top Republican and will likely be the panel's chairman next year. He noted he is still learning more about the matter, and said he wanted to know “who edited it? Under whose authority?”
Hastings also issued a prepared statement on the matter Wednesday.
"Who at the White House actually rewrote the Interior Department document? Is that person a scientist with relevant experience or a political appointee?” he said.
Hastings also suggested that the White House may have a hand in other Interior actions.
“Furthermore, what other Interior Department decisions are being changed or made by unknown White House staff? This moratorium has cost thousands of jobs and caused severe economic impacts throughout the Gulf. We need to get answers as to who and how these policy decisions are being made and ensure that they are actually based on sound science,” he said.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), a critic of the deepwater drilling ban who requested the inspector general review in June, pounced on the new findings.
“I initially requested this investigation on June 16 because I wanted to make sure that the federal government was basing policy decisions that would directly impact so many Louisianans on science — not politics. Unfortunately, this report reveals the contrary,” he said.
A White House spokesman could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The Obama administration last month lifted the deepwater drilling freeze that was imposed in late May in response to the BP oil spill.
But Vitter and other critics of the moratorium fear that Interior will drag its feet in issuing drilling permits even though the formal ban has been removed.
Interior Department officials are emphasizing the inspector general’s conclusion that they did not intentionally seek to mislead.
Officials are also noting they took steps — including a letter to the engineers in June — to clear up the misunderstanding with the experts who felt the May report misrepresented their views.
A Nov. 9 memo from Kendall to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar accompanying her report backs this up, stating: “All DOI officials interviewed stated that it was not their intention to imply that the moratorium had been peer reviewed by the experts, and that when the experts' concern was brought to their attention, they promptly issued an apology to the experts via conference call, letter, and personal meeting.”
Salazar, in a letter to Kendall on Tuesday, noted that the report “confirms that there was no wrongdoing or intent to mislead the public.”
“The decision to impose a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling was made by the secretary, following consultation with colleagues including the White House. As the report makes clear, the misunderstanding with the reviewers was resolved with the June 3rd letter and a subsequent conference call with those experts,” added Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Interior.