WASHINGTON – Allegations that scientists' views were improperly used to justify a federal moratorium on deep-water drilling are being investigated, the Interior Department's top watchdog says.
House Republicans who had sought the investigation released a letter Thursday from Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall confirming the probe.
Scientists who consulted with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for a report on drilling safety this spring said the department falsely implied they had agreed to a "blanket moratorium." The scientists said the drilling moratorium went too far and warned that it may have a lasting impact on the nation's economy.
The Interior Department's May 27 report, which called for the moratorium, said that its recommendations had been "peer-reviewed" by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering.
Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the experts were not asked to review or comment on the decision to implement the moratorium. They were asked only to review the 22 safety recommendations contained in the report on a technical basis, and they performed that task, she said.
The department has said previously that by listing the experts who had peer-reviewed those recommendations, it did not mean to imply that those experts also agreed with the moratorium.
Those assurances have done little to mollify a group of Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee, who urged Kendall in a letter this week to launch the investigation.
"Were any laws broken?" asked the seven lawmakers, led by the committee's top Republican, Doc Hastings of Washington. They also questioned whether the White House or political appointees had any influence.
Depending on the results of the investigation, the inspector general could come up with recommendations aimed at preventing a repeat of any problems she finds.
Separately, a bipartisan group of senators urged Salazar to resume and expedite shallow-water drilling permits. Although those operations are not covered by the moratorium, the senators noted that only one new shallow-water permit has been issued in the last 10 weeks.
"Idling the Gulf's shallow-water rig fleet indefinitely would be another blow to a region that has already suffered enough during this unprecedented disaster," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
She and the nine other senators — eight Republicans led by Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and one other Democrat, Mark Begich of Alaska — introduced a resolution urging a swift review of applications. They also pressed the case in a letter to Salazar.
Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said it has been working with shallow-water drillers to provide guidance on the requirements of new reforms, which were put in place to strengthen offshore drilling safety and protect the environment.
In addition to issuing written guidance, the bureau has concluded a week of discussions led by Director Michael Bromwich and will continue to have a dialogue on the matter, she said.