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Is Salazar the New Holder?

Charges of cover-ups, data manipulation, and junk science; noncompliance with congressional requests and mandates; putting a chokehold on energy: Interior scandals stack up.

by
Bridget Johnson

Bio

July 26, 2012 - 4:19 pm

In April, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee unleashed on Attorney General Eric Holder for a litany of sins that had surfaced before one committee or another and made the Obama appointee a household name through cable news, talk radio, and the blogosphere.

“The pattern of pushing partisan ideology rather than neutrally enforcing the law began nearly as soon as the Administration took office and has continued unabated since,” the report from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) stated, launching into criticism of Holder’s handling of Operation Fast and Furious, legal action against Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law, challenging states’ voter ID laws, blocking congressional inquiries, offering shady counsel on recess appointments, etc.

Last month, Holder became the first sitting Cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress.

Pushing the administration’s agenda. Not cooperating with committee investigations. Jeopardizing American values and the rule of law. The charges against Holder aren’t unique to the attorney general.

It brings to mind the question: Scandal-wise, congressional spotlight-wise, and perhaps soon headline-wise, is Interior Secretary Ken Salazar the new Holder?

The Interior Department has become synonymous with evading congressional requests in the investigation of how the Obama administration bent scientific reports to support its drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. The department’s inspector general who was supposed to ensure oversight of that process is even being investigated herself on allegations that she tampered with a probe of the moratorium.

Sens. David Vitter (R-La.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and John Cornyn (R-Texas) won a request for the Integrity Committee of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to investigate Acting IG Mary Kendall. She has also been called to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee on Aug. 2.

In shades of the DOJ, the Interior Department has responded to committee requests for specific documents with blacked-out paragraphs and entire pages of redacted information, all while claiming to have answered the panel’s requests with “nearly 2,000 pages of documents.”

And when five witnesses linked to the Gulf drilling moratorium were asked to testify before the Natural Resources Committee this week, the Interior Department refused to confirm that it would make those officials available to Congress despite multiple inquiries from the committee. Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) was forced to cancel yesterday’s scheduled hearing, to be rescheduled sometimes after the August recess.

“There is a clear pattern of actions by the Interior Department to withhold information and answers on the Administration’s falsely edited report and decision to impose a Gulf drilling moratorium that cost thousands of jobs, inflicted widespread economic harm and restricted American energy production,” said Hastings.

“The Department is refusing to comply with a Congressional subpoena for documents and now they refuse to make key individuals in the Department available for on-the-record questioning,” he added. “This investigative hearing will happen and will be rescheduled to ensure cooperation.”

But this is far from the only taint on President Obama’s Interior Department.

Ken Salazar, a former Democratic senator and attorney general of Colorado, was brought into the fold early by Obama’s transition team.

Since then, his department has been held in civil contempt for refusing to comply with an injunction against the offshore drilling moratorium and has spun the administration line about domestic energy production being up while simultaneously cutting back on oil and gas exploration on federal lands — with leasing falling to the lowest amount of acreage in 20 years.

Then there was the Fish and Wildlife Service’s drastic cutback of water to cities and farms in California’s San Joaquin Valley in deference to a tiny threatened fish, based on an environmental study that a federal judge ruled in 2010 to be “arbitrary” and “capricious” junk science.

“There’s plenty of scandal to go around in this administration,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who represents the valley, told PJM. “With Eric Holder, you have a major scandal with Fast and Furious, which has resulted in numerous deaths. And it is inexcusable that Holder is defying Congressional requests to turn over documents that could explain how this misguided operation was conceived and implemented.”

“As for Ken Salazar, he is a fully owned subsidiary of the environmental lobby,” Nunes continued. “This is evident in the plight of my district’s farmers, who have had much of their water supply cut off and are being forced off their land due to federal environmental regulations that can accurately be described as anti-human.”

The Valley farmers aren’t the only Californians to be bullied under Salazar’s watch. The Drakes Bay Oyster Company was accused of having an adverse impact on harbor seals at Point Reyes, data “selectively” slanted, in the words of the National Research Council, by Pacific West regional director of the National Park Service Jon Jarvis.

“I became concerned about this issue when I found that the science regarding the impacts of the oyster farm had been manipulated, and that the oyster farm operator had been treated in a biased and unfair manner,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote in a May letter to the California Fish and Game Commission, defending the company. “The Park Service has repeatedly misrepresented the scientific record since 2006 to portray the farm as environmentally harmful, and it is my belief that the Park Service is doing everything it can to justify ending the oyster farm’s operations.”

The Interior Department also commissioned the report for the Environmental Protection Agency that is leading to rules that may force the largest coal plant in the West — the Navajo Generating Station — to shut down as early as 2017. Not only would the new pricey regulations — a $1.1 billion price tag for compliance — eliminate one of the most reliable energy sources in the region, but plant closure and impact on the coal mine that feeds it would put some 1,000 out of work on the already impoverished reservation.

Earlier this month, Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked Salazar why his department refused to follow through on mandated reporting requirements and release labor statistics documenting the employment situation in Indian country.

According to a July 2, 2012, letter from Acting Assistant Secretary Donald Laverdure to Indian tribal leaders, the 2010 report will not be issued due to “methodology inconsistencies” and the department’s failure to provide clear direction to obtain the specific tribal information for the 2010 report. “Moreover, Mr. Laverdure’s letter suggests that no further reports will be issued until a new survey instrument is designed after extensive consultation with Indian tribes and other Federal agencies,” Barrasso and Murkowski wrote. “However, the letter fails to state when that consultation will be completed and a new report will be issued.”

With the Interior Department website bragging about long-term economic development from stimulus investments in the Indian nations, there’s no way to measure how funds having truly impacted the communities — where, as Laverdure testified before Congress in 2010, unemployment may reach as high as 80 percent. The senators asked Salazar to immediately release the report or provide a detailed explanation why “the Department of Interior, despite prior assurances otherwise, has failed to comply with the law.”

On Tuesday, 63 members of Congress, including two Democrats, signed a Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) letter to Salazar questioning how much the Bureau of Land Management is considering the feedback of oil- and gas-producing states in its attempt to create federal regulations for hydraulic fracturing.

In May, the BLM announced a proposal to regulate fracking on federal and Indian lands despite comprehensive state and local laws already in existence. “We have heard from several interested parties that BLM did not listen to the feedback from oil and gas producing states,” Gardner wrote. “States overwhelmingly believe that federal regulation is not necessary.”

The lawmakers also asked Salazar to reconcile the BLM estimate of the new regulations costing from $37 million to $44 million per year with a Western Energy Alliance analysis that pegs the annual estimated cost of the proposed rule at $1.615 billion.

Not the final issue by far is the 5-year offshore drilling plan that shrinks the access area for energy production to the smallest amount in the history of 5-year plans.

On the same day that the nation’s attention was turned toward the ObamaCare ruling at the Supreme Court, the Obama administration was quietly issuing a 2012-2017 energy proposal that would place a virtual moratorium over 85 percent of the nation’s offshore areas.

Gulf Coast Sens. Vitter and Sessions introduced a bill to repeal and replace the 5-year plan; the House approved Hastings’ repeal-and-replace version yesterday 253-170, with 25 Democrats in support, and also voted 261-164 to reject Obama’s plan.

Vitter also introduced a bill with Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) last week to strip energy development functions from the Interior Department and place those responsibilities with the Department of Energy.

“I’ll continue working to fix the unnecessary bureaucracy and economically crippling actions taken by the Department of Interior – especially since they failed with the Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium, produced a wholly inadequate five-year offshore lease plan and still don’t want to issue permits offshore or provide access onshore,” Vitter told PJM.

“Our nation’s energy policy has turned into a slow-paced bureaucratic mess – largely due to the Department of Interior and Secretary Salazar.”

Bridget Johnson is a career journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
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