Money to double drilling inspection staff included in spending bill OK’d by House


The House on Wednesday approved 212-206 a $1.2 trillion spending bill that Democrats say will double the number of federal oil and gas inspectors needed to improve federal oversight of offshore drilling after the BP oil spill disaster.

The bill also takes a recommendation from the Obama administration and staffers for the National Oil Spill Commission to give the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement 90 days, instead of the current 30, to conduct environmental assessments for proposed offshore oil and gas exploration plans.

The president has said 30 days isn’t enough time for a thorough review. Last week, a coalition of environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council, said the 30-day deadline “prevents adequate review and adds to the pressure to approve exploration activities” such as the ill-fated BP Macondo well.

Louisiana lawmakers said the tripling of the time given for review of exploratory drilling proposals, if approved by the Senate, would further cripple an industry that has seen offshore drilling permits slowed significantly since the BP spill on April 20, even after the administration dropped its six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in October.

“BOEM has requested an increase in funding to perform offshore inspections, which includes the permitting process, and it makes no sense to triple the amount of review time while simultaneously allowing for an increase in staff to oversee and inspect these same rigs,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson. “This proposal will dramatically impact our energy security and should not be attached to other bills without an open and transparent debate.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., earlier in the week joined Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in asking Senate Appropriations Committee leaders to drop the new 90-day time frame for reviewing offshore oil exploration permits.

“It has now been eight months since the Deepwater Horizon accident, and our nation’s offshore oil and gas industry is still reeling from the economic impact of the moratorium and now the de facto moratorium that has taken its place,” Landrieu and Murkowski said in their letter. “Adding more time to the clock will only serve to further delay a process that needs to be accelerated.”

Last week, staff for the National Oil Spill Commission, which is planning to release a report on the BP accident on Jan. 11, said it agrees with the Obama administration that 90 days to evaluate exploration applications is sufficient time to do a review.

The additional inspectors were requested by the administration after the Interior Department inspector general said last summer the BOEM has only 60 inspectors to monitor offshore drilling over a 4,000-mile radius in the Gulf of Mexico.

The bill also provides more money for training and technology for federal offshore drilling monitoring.

The spending bill, approved Wednesday by the House, enacts several Obama administration proposals, including a freeze on salaries for nonmilitary federal employees and an appropriation of $159 billion for the war the Afghanistan. It provides money for the remainder of the fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30.

Supporters said it contains no congressional earmarks.

Republicans opposed the bill, saying they preferred a shorter-term spending bill so the new GOP majority can make bigger cuts in federal agency spending when the new Congress convenes next month.

But outgoing House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., defended it as a responsible spending formula for the federal government.

“The committee has done its dead-level best within the constraints under which we are operating to make some modest adjustments to salvage some investments which over the long haul might create more jobs than a tax break for millionaires and adjustments that just might ease the financial desperation facing so many families today who cannot afford to send their kids to college, to find decent child care, or to provide adequate medical attention for their needs,” Obey said.

All seven members of the Louisiana House delegation voted no, including Scalise; Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, R-New Orleans; and Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville.

All 171 Republicans voted no, as well as 35 Democrats.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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