The US Senate refused to invoke cloture on May 13 and allow a vote on David Hayes's nomination to be deputy US Interior secretary.
Two Republican senators, Robert B. Bennett (Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (Alas.), had placed holds on Hayes's nomination to protest US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's cancellation of 77 leases in a Dec. 18 Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease sale in Utah.
The 57-to-39 vote sent a message to the Obama administration that it needs to answer congressional Republicans' legitimate questions, Bennett said afterward. "Indeed, I want to do everything I can to confirm Mr. Hayes expeditiously, but it does not mean that I should give up my rights to get clear answers to my questions," he said.
"The real obstruction is coming from DOI and its unwillingness, despite commitments made, to answer direct questions from Republicans. There is a clear path forward and it is my hope that the secretary will follow through on the promises made by the department so we can confirm his nominee," Bennett maintained.
The cloture motion balloting was three votes less than the 60 which were needed. All but two Senate Republicans voted against the measure.
Murkowski said the issue moved beyond the cancelled Utah leases to a basic question of whether Republicans can get straight answers after Bennett asked DOI two months ago to review the lease cancellation decision because it was based on justifications that were not factual. DOI responded that it would once Hayes was confirmed, Murkowski said.
She said that she has other concerns about the direction DOI has headed on energy issues, adding that neither she nor Bennett have asked the department to adopt or repeal any specific policy, or take or repeal any specific legislative action. DOI responded with a May 12 letter which Murkowski said only provided vague and incomplete answers to her questions.
"This issue could be easily resolved if the administration would provide honest and specific answers to a few of my most important concerns about its plans for Alaska and the nation's energy policy," she declared.
Salazar called the result "a tired vote of bitter obstructionism. It may be uncomfortable for some to watch us have to clean up mess after mess, from corruption to lawbreaking, that is the previous administration's legacy at [DOI], but to cast a vote against such a qualified and fine person is the height of cynicism.
"We have answered every question and worked to find common ground on difficult issues, but the American people rightfully want change from the Obama administration and from [DOI]. The American people will know, once again, that [DOI] is wisely managing their treasured landscapes and their natural resources on their behalf," he said in a statement.
'A complete lineup'
In a floor statement supporting Hayes's nomination, Majority Leader Harry N. Reid (D-Nev.) said that senators with good intentions can disagree on issues, or with the administration. "But we should all be able to agree that the president and his cabinet deserve to have a complete lineup when their team takes the field on the most important issues we face," he continued.
Hayes successfully served in the same position during the Clinton administration and understands what it takes to run a federal department with 70,000 employees, Reid said. "Every state has unique challenges. Mr. Hayes is prepared to travel across the West to confront them head-on, not so he can tell states what to do, but rather so he can work with them to address each issue thoughtfully and respectfully," he said.
"Working together toward such solutions is the answer. Robbing a cabinet secretary of his right-hand man is not," said Reid.
In a keynote address to a dialogue on business and energy at the US Chamber of Commerce on May 13, Salazar said that actions during the Obama administration's first 100 days to reverse oil and gas steps his predecessor, Dirk A. Kempthorne, took toward the end of his tenure were necessary. In addition to canceling the Utah leases, these included extending the comment period for and broadening the scope of a new five-year Outer Continental Shelf that Kempthorne launched last summer, and recasting a solicitation for a second round of oil shale pilot proposals so that they would not involve as much land.
Salazar said that in all three cases, he felt that the earlier decisions were made without adequate consultations with other federal departments and agencies, state and local governments, adjacent property owners and other stakeholders. He also noted that during the same 100 days, DOI sold oil and gas leases totaling 1.5 million acres onshore and 1.8 million acres offshore.
Court's OCS ruling
"That's been validated by the recent federal court decision here in Washington where the current OCS leasing program was vacated because part of the Alaska portion's potential environmental impacts had not been properly evaluated. This puts in question how we evaluate environmental impacts as we move into deeper waters, not only off Alaska's coast but also in the Gulf of Mexico," he continued.
Later that morning, as he testified before the US House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee about DOI's budget request for fiscal 2010, Salazar said that the court's decision was difficult because it seemed to throw the entire five-year OCS plan out. "In our petition for clarification, we argue that we ought to address problems the court identified in Alaska, but also ought to be allowed to proceed with the rest of the program, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico," he said.
The budget request includes increases of $11.9 million to BLM and $5 million to the US Minerals Management Service for oil and gas leasing, offsetting reductions in mandatory rental revenues which previously support the programs, he told the subcommittee.
In the area of audits and compliance, the proposed budget includes $1.7 million to MMS to provide timely and accurate production and gas plant accountability data, $3 million to MMS to implement a risk-based audit and compliance protocol, and $2.5 million for BLM's oil and gas management program to enhance production verification capabilities, he added.
One of the subcommittee's members, Maurice D. Hinchey (D-NY), said that he approved of Salazar's decision to cancel the Utah leases. "Some members of the Senate don't agree with you because they're holding my deputy secretary's nomination hostage," the secretary replied.
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