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President Obama's moratorium on new offshore oil drilling has turned out to be more complicated than it first seemed. The government's Minerals Management Service has issued at least 17 drilling permits in the last month. Administration officials say those permits do not violate the ban.
As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the details of the drilling freeze can be difficult to assess because the moratorium was not put into writing.
ARI SHAPIRO: The administration's statements about the ban on new drilling sound very straightforward. Here's how President Obama put it in the White House Rose Garden on May 14th.
President BARACK OBAMA: 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 completed.
SHAPIRO: Testifying to Congress four days later, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made it sound equally clear.
Secretary KEN SALAZAR (Department of the Interior): We have hit the pause button. The president has been very clear with me: Hit the pause button. We have hit the pause button.
SHAPIRO: The morning of that hearing, the Associated Press reported that the Minerals Management Service had approved at least nine deepwater exploration wells in the gulf since the explosion.
When asked about that article, Salazar criticized what he called facts and figures and misunderstandings that have been flying from all directions. He mentioned the OCS, which is the Outer Continental Shelf, in the Gulf of Mexico.
Sec. SALAZAR: There is no deepwater well in the OCS that has been spudded -that means started - after April 20th.
SHAPIRO: Then, he added...
Sec. SALAZAR: We have a responsibility to come up with the best information and the best facts with respect to all these issues.
SHAPIRO: But Salazar did not have the best information or the best facts. Interior Department spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley said in an email: The secretary misspoke at the hearing. In fact, there was a deepwater well started in the gulf after April 20th. Lee-Ashley said it was on a permit issued before the explosion.
According to the Minerals Management Service website, at least 17 drilling permits have been issued since April 20th. Some of those are for wells in far deeper water than the rig that exploded in the gulf.
Yesterday, White House energy coordinator Carol Browner said these are not new permits. They're modifications to existing ones.
Ms. CAROL BROWNER (Director, White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy): It is quite routine, where you're currently drilling and you need to make a modification, you've encountered something that you didn't anticipate, and so you go back in. And 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.
SHAPIRO: Environmental lawyers who specialize in this field say they find the administration's statements confusing.
Derb Carter is with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Mr. DERB CARTER (Director, Southern Environmental Law Center): We're not sure what is going on. We filed a lawsuit seeking to stop this new permitting, to revoke the permits for the wells that were issued after the BP disaster. 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.
SHAPIRO: The Justice Department declined to comment.
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.
Mr. MIKE SENATORE (Counsel, Defenders of Wildlife): 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.
SHAPIRO: In fact, two Interior officials tell NPR the drilling suspension was not put into writing. One said in an email, quote: It was a straightforward verbal order to the director of Minerals Management Service, which was then transmitted within MMS.
Professor PAUL LIGHT (Professor of Public Service, New York University): This is so ridiculous that it defies understanding.
SHAPIRO: Paul Light is a professor of public service at NYU.
Prof. LIGHT: It could not be more important to enforce this moratorium and make it absolutely clear to the oil industry what is and is not permissible. 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.
SHAPIRO: Interior Department spokesperson Kendra Barkoff defended Salazar in a statement.
Ms. KENDRA BARKOFF (Spokesperson, Department of Interior): 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.
SHAPIRO: The moratorium was scheduled to last 30 days. It expires Thursday, when the president receives the Interior Department's environmental safety report. He's then expected to take questions at the White House.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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