President Obama's moratorium on new offshore oil drilling has turned out to be more complicated than it first seemed. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) has issued at least 17 drilling permits in the past month. Administration officials say those permits do not violate the ban. But the moratorium was not put into writing, which can make the details of the drilling freeze difficult to assess.
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.
"It is quite routine, where you're currently drilling and you need to make a modification; you've encountered something you didn't anticipate, and so you go back in," Browner told reporters at the White House. "It's called a permit, but I think the better way to think about it is that it's a modification to an existing permit."
Environmental lawyers who specialize in this field say they find the administration's statements confusing.
"We're not sure what is going on," says Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center. His organization has sued to revoke the permits that were issued after the explosion in the Gulf. "We're trying to clarify now with Department of Justice attorneys exactly what actions, if any, the administration has taken that would legally revoke these permits that were issued."
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Looking For Ban Documents
One source of confusion is the apparent lack of an original document laying out all the details of the moratorium. Mike Senatore is with Defenders of Wildlife, another environmental group that is suing the administration.
"We have, in fact, been trying to locate and to actually get from the Interior Department something that actually documents that there is in fact a suspension," says Senatore.
In fact, two Interior officials tell NPR the drilling suspension was not put into writing.
"It was a straightforward verbal order to the director of MMS, which was then transmitted within MMS," said one official in an email.
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."
Interior Department spokesperson Kendra Barkoff defended Salazar in a statement.
"As the department's chief executive, the secretary has the authority to direct the department's employees in performance of their duties and responsibilities," Barkoff said. "In this instance, the secretary issued the order. MMS director Liz Birnbaum saw to it that the order was carried out, and no permits to drill new wells have been issued since."
The moratorium was scheduled to last 30 days. The deadline is Thursday. After the president receives the Interior Department's environmental safety report, he will take questions from reporters at the White House.