The bipartisan battle over the Obama Administration's deepwater drilling moratorium, imposed after the April 20 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has snagged the president's nominee to head his budget office, and the skirmish does not appear to be letting up any time soon.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., on Wednesday called the six-month ban on deepwater drilling "a terrible error," and said she has no intention of releasing her hold on Jack Lew to head the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) until the Administration "changes, excels, or modifies" the drilling ban which does not expire until November 30.
"I make no apologies for continuing this hold," Landrieu said defiantly, adding, "This Administration has the entire exploration of oil and gas shut down in the Gulf of Mexico...I know the United States needs someone running point on this economic recovery, but I need someone running point on Gulf Coast economic recovery right now."
And Landrieu has the staunch support of her fellow Bayou State senator, David Vitter, a Republican, who said in a statement released by his office, "I support the hold on Jack Lew until the administration understands the pain its moratorium is causing folks along the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately, sometimes holds are needed to get this administration to focus, much as my hold on FEMA nominee Craig Fugate forced a resolution to the flood zone issue."
On Tuesday, the senators sat down with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement Director Michael Bromwich to discuss the impasse, but it is not clear progress was made.
An Interior official tells Fox the secretary "made clear (in the meeting) that he understands the senators' concerns, but that he will make decisions on the temporary deepwater drilling suspensions based on the progress of the reforms we are implementing and the recommendations of Director Bromwich. He will make those decisions independently, at his own pace, with the goal of creating a gold standard for worker safety, drilling safety, and environmental protection."
"We've got to see some immediate relief," Landrieu said. "Hopefully, if we can get something done in the next couple of weeks, I will be happy to lift my hold."
That would leave Lew cooling his heels until a lame duck session now scheduled for mid-November and most of the month of December. But for the senator's blockade, Jack Lew would have sailed to confirmation with heavy bipartisan support. He passed two relevant Senate committees with overwhelming support. Only one senator, Bernie Sanders, I-VT, voted against the nomination, saying he wants fresher ideas for dealing with the weak U.S. economy.
The Interior Department could soon release a report on on the moratorium on drilling in deep waters, which could allow the secretary to lift the ban. Landrieu said she needs to see more than that, though. "I'm hoping the results will be that permits are issued, because it's two things: it's lifting the moratorium or modifying it substantially, and issuing permits. It doesn't do me any good to technically get the moratorium lifted but no permits are issued," Landrieu said.
The senator told reporters that "the most upsetting" part of the disagreement is what she called a lack of action on shallow water permits, something Vitter referred to as "a de facto moratorium," as the Administration did not officially ban this type of drilling. "They're not supposed to be under a moratorium, yet only seven (permits) have been issued for shallow water drilling, contrasted to the same time last year when 49 were issued," the senator recounted. Politico quoted Director Bromwich on Tuesday as saying, "Even when the moratorium is lifted, you're not going to see drilling come on the next day or the next week."
According to the Interior official, "Bromwich also provided an update on the progress of shallow water permitting. He has made it clear that BOEM will not be cutting corners or rubber stamping anything. Oil and gas companies need to meet the new standards for safety and environmental compliance if they are going to be allowed to develop in U.S. waters."
This is not the first time Landrieu has held up Senate action for her state. The feisty Louisianan has, in the past, held up legislation, President George Bush's nominees, or even an adjournment resolution after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas and Landrieu felt her state was not getting the attention and money it needed.
"We have to have people getting back to work drilling for oil and fishing, shrimping, and get other people back to work, like in tourism," Landrieu said.