INTERIOR:

Vitter pledges to block confirmation of wildlife chief

Updated at 1:15 p.m.

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) said today that he will block the confirmation of Rebecca Wodder as the Interior Department's assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks until the Obama administration extends hundreds of expiring Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leases for an additional year.

Vitter said he will maintain his hold until Obama carries out a May promise to extend drilling leases that were "impacted" by the deepwater drilling moratorium established in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon incident in April 2010, as well as some Arctic Ocean leases.

"In 2011 alone, more than 300 offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico are due to expire," Vitter said in a statement. "If these leases are allowed to expire, they will revert to the federal government, killing jobs and cutting off potential revenue from exploration and production."

An Interior spokesman this afternoon pointed to a June memorandum from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that described how operators can request one-year extensions for qualifying deepwater leases. Leaseholders must demonstrate that there was no oil or gas production on the lease as of May 2011, that the lease is in waters deeper than 500 feet and that the lease is scheduled to expire on or before the end of 2015, according to Interior.

“Senator Vitter’s request is perplexing, and we expect that he will lift his hold since we took action on this a month and a half ago,” said spokesman Adam Fetcher. The agency is currently processing more than 1,350 requests for extension.

Michael Bromwich, director of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, in May said his agency had granted each of the 10 requests for lease extensions it had received since the Deepwater Horizon incident and that it is working to develop clearer criteria for granting future extensions.

He said the agency had been "extraordinarily liberal" in granting extensions for leaseholders that have been "stopped from doing work or anticipated doing work."

The hold is Vitter's second of an Interior nominee this year to force the administration's hand on accelerating oil and gas development in the Gulf. He blocked the confirmation of Dan Ashe as director of the Fish and Wildlife Service until Interior issued 15 deepwater drilling permits. Ashe was confirmed early last month.

In a controversial move that drew charges of bribery from a left-leaning government watchdog, Vitter in May said he would thwart a $20,000 pay raise for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar until BOEMRE begins issuing at least six new deepwater oil and gas permits a month (Greenwire, May 25).

Others may also place holds on Wodder, who has been criticized for her past position as CEO of American Rivers in opposing hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, advocating for dam removals and supporting expanded use of the Clean Water Act.

A spokesman for Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (R), ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said he would place a hold on Wodder if her nomination is advanced to the floor.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said yesterday that she opposed Wodder's nomination, but has not decided if she would place a hold on her confirmation. She said she would withdraw Wodder's nomination if she were in Obama's position.

Murkowski at a hearing last week asked Wodder to retract previous statements that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has created a "toxic soup" and threatens drinking water.

"I gave her a chance to clear up the record, and it didn't give me any inch of confidence in her in that position," Murkowski said. "I think you're going to have bipartisan opposition to her."

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), whose vote would be critical if Wodder's nomination is to pass ENR, said yesterday he has not decided whether he would support her confirmation.