Secretary Salazar continues to face pressure from all sides over oil drilling in Gulf

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As Ken Salazar heads to Capitol Hill Wednesday for the first of two days of hearings, the interior secretary will be facing pressure from all sides of the deep-water drilling debate. Despite his own personal agenda, Salazar is in many ways the middle man between two opposing forces pushing on him to act in different directions on issuing permits to drill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“After kicking the approval for oil drilling permits down the road for months, Salazar has finally hit the wall as he faces a congressional grilling,” said Tom Borelli of the Free Enterprise Project.

“By putting a face on an unelected bureaucrat, Congress can send a strong message that they are willing to hold Salazar accountable for his lack of action,” Borelli added.

Capitol Hill Republicans and industry representatives are mounting a full-court press to force Salazar’s hand on issuing deep-water permits. The announcement Monday evening that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) would issue the first deep-water permit since the BP oil spill last April to Noble Energy was widely viewed as an attempt to at least temporarily alleviate that pressure.

But Salazar’s 11th hour concession ahead of his testimony on the Hill did little to smooth things over with Republicans, who were quick to point out that the permit to Noble Energy is not exactly “new.” Rather, it allows a company to resume drilling activities that were suspended in May when the Obama administration implemented a drilling moratorium in the Gulf.

Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, the very committee Salazar will appear before on Thursday, responded to the announcement by saying it was good news, but not enough.

“The Administration must immediately move ahead with issuing other permits and comply with the recent judicial decision ordering the Administration to act,” said Hastings. “This one new permit will not ease the economic pain being inflicted on Gulf families.”

Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Murphy is proposing a bill called the SECURE Act which would compel Salazar and the Department of Interior to allow oil companies that had been approved for deep-water drilling prior to the BP oil spill to resume drilling without any further delay. Murphy’s SECURE Act currently has roughly 20 co-sponsors in the House.

Jim Adams, president and CEO of Offshore Marine Service Association, released a statement in response to Salazar supposed concession, saying, “Much more is needed, and soon.”

“There are over 100 deep-water development plans that have yet to be cleared to even become eligible for a permit,” Adams said. “Stopping all permits, and then approving a single one, only prolongs the suffering of thousands or workers and their families.”

On the other side pressuring Salazar are environmental groups opposed to drilling in the Gulf who have promised to sue Salazar and the Interior Department for already authorizing certain oil projects in the Gulf. Those projects include leasing programs, exploration projects, and development and production plans approved by BOEMRE that the environmentalist groups say could endanger the local wildlife.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and the Gulf Restoration Network sent a letter in early February to Salazar and BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich, among others, informing them of their intent to sue.

The environmental groups aren’t planning to give up anytime soon. When contacted by The Daily Caller, Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that she is closely monitoring the government’s movements on offshore drilling permits.

“Secretary Salazar has done very little to assure better practices after the oil spill,” Sakashita told TheDC. “While he has pledged to make changes, most of the promises have yet to be fulfilled…Secretary Salazar has taken incremental steps toward reforming an industry that needs a complete overhaul.”

Dan Favre, spokesperson for the Gulf Restoration Network, told TheDC his organization was “disappointed that another drilling permit has been granted before there have been meaningful changes to regulations and enforcement mechanisms that were in place at the time of the BP disaster.”

“[G]overnment assurances ring hollow here in the Gulf,” Favre added.

While Salazar’s appearances on the Hill Wednesday and Thursday are intended to allow the secretary to defend his agency’s budget requests, the oil-drilling issue is expected to dominate. At this point, neither Salazar nor Bromwich have indicated when other pending drilling permits will be authorized.

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