NPR logo Obama's Leaky Offshore Drilling Halt Raises Eyebrows

Obama's Leaky Offshore Drilling Halt Raises Eyebrows

How is it that the Obama Administration could declare a moratorium on offshore oil drilling immediately after the Deepwater Horizon explosion only to have 17 permits issued afterwards?

That's the question NPR's Ari Shapiro attempted to answer with a report on All Things Considered. The answer? It's complicated.

The confusion apparently stems, according to Ari, from the Obama Administration, inexplicably, not putting a consequential order like the moratorium in writing.

That's somewhat hard to fathom given all the relatively inconsequential information the White House memorializes on paper. But it nevertheless is what happened.

An excerpt from Ari's web report:

The administration's statements about the ban on new drilling have been straightforward. "We've announced that no permits for drilling new wells will go forward until the 30-day safety and environmental review that I requested is complete," President Obama said May 14 in the White House Rose Garden.

Testifying before Congress on May 18, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made it sound equally clear. "The president has been very clear with me: Hit the pause button," Salazar said. "We have hit the pause button."

The day of that hearing, the AP reported that MMS had approved at least nine deepwater exploration wells in the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on April 20, with minimal environmental reviews.

When asked about that article, Salazar criticized what he called "facts and figures and misunderstandings" that have been "flying from all directions."

"There is no deepwater well in the OCS that has been spudded — that means started — after April 20," Salazar testified. The OCS is the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico.

Salazar added, "We have a responsibility to come up with the best information and the best facts with respect to all these issues."

But Salazar did not have the best information or the best facts. In an e-mail, Interior Department spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley wrote that "the Secretary misspoke at the hearing."

In fact, a deepwater well was started in the Gulf after April 20. It "was on a permit that was approved prior to the explosion," according to Lee-Ashley.

The MMS website indicates that at least 17 drilling permits have been issued since April 20. Some of those are for wells in far deeper water than the rig that exploded in the Gulf.

On Monday, White House energy coordinator Carol Browner said the wells are not new; they are modifications to existing permits.

Later in the report, Ari has a quote from Paul Light of New York University, one of the nation's leading experts on the workings of the federal bureaucracy.

Light found the administration's approach a head scratcher. Another snippet:

Government expert Paul Light of New York University calls the decision not to put this order into writing "so ridiculous that it defies understanding."

"It could not be more important to enforce this moratorium and make absolutely clear to the oil industry what is and is not permissible," says Light. "And yet you have the execution of a critical order that appears to have been basically done through the most casual way possible under federal law."