How the White House Delivered a Crushing Economic Blow to the Gulf

Here’s the book-jacket teaser: A major U.S. environmental disaster strikes. As Coast Guard and other heroes struggle to contain the unprecedented damage, a different scene unfolds in a dimly lit conference room in Washington. A small group of high-ranking political hacks and overzealous ideologues see an opportunity to manipulate the situation to advance their agenda. They doctor a key report on the disaster by experts in order to justify shutting down all exploration and new production. They explain the sweeping decision as something sound science requires.

Several weeks later, members of Congress and a few in the media dig deeper into the alleged science behind bringing an entire industry to a screeching halt. That’s when the cover-up begins.

A catchy political thriller? If only it were fiction. Instead, it’s what seems to have happened in the Obama administration following the BP disaster.

And as a U.S. senator from Louisiana, I suffered through seeing it firsthand.

Some aspects of the 30-day experts’ report seemed suspect to me from the beginning. So I called for an inspector general to investigate the Obama administration’s claim that science supported the decision to shut down the Gulf. That investigation revealed that high-ranking officials in the Department of the Interior and the White House inappropriately manipulated the 30-day experts’ report to justify the offshore drilling moratorium — all in violation of the Information Quality Act and contrary to sound science.

On June 21, 2010, new reports revealed that the scientists in question in fact opposed the moratorium. They were shocked that their report was doctored to justify it. They even actively lobbied Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to soften the ban.

However, on Nov. 10, 2010, Mary Kendall, the inspector general for the Interior Department investigation, concluded that Interior officials were really only guilty of sloppy editing. She determined that Interior’s moving some words around in the experts’ report was more akin to a clerical error, and that Interior Secretary Salazar had already apologized for that.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. In May 2011, a government whistleblower came forward. He alleged that Kendall in fact colluded with Interior officials during her “independent” investigation. And then, after exploring this claim, a congressional committee unveiled specific materials that showed that Kendall had actually attended meetings in which Interior officials reviewed working drafts of the very same report she later was tasked with investigating — a clear conflict which Kendall never revealed.

Once confronted with this startling conflict, Kendall confirmed her attendance in those meetings to USA Today, claiming she “was an active listener” but not an “active participant in these meetings.”

As Mark Twain once famously said: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Unfortunately, it can also have serious, real-world consequences, unlike a cleverly written political thriller.

The biggest consequence in this case is that major energy exploration and new production in the Gulf of Mexico was basically turned off for more than six months. Many thousands of workers directly involved in that work were laid off. Many more in oilfield service and related support businesses lost their jobs and livelihoods or were forced to split from their families and seek work overseas. Eleven massive deepwater rigs left the Gulf of Mexico for redeployment in Brazil, Africa, even Australia. Other rigs that were headed to the Gulf turned away and shallow-water rigs were idled. The economic hit to my state of Louisiana was actually bigger than that of the recent recession.

In light of all of this, I’ve joined with other Senate colleagues from the Gulf region in calling for an independent Integrity Committee to conduct a thorough and accurate investigation and get to the bottom of the apparent inspector general cover-up. They are actively reviewing the matter now.

It’s pretty outrageous that politics seem to have tempered significantly the inspector general’s investigation. And that politics and ideology, not sound science, is what led to the unprecedented moratorium decision in the first place.

It would all make for one heck of a political thriller. If only it were fiction.

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