Getting agency information ‘like pulling teeth’ — GOP lawmaker

By Phil Taylor | 05/20/2016 07:00 AM EDT

The Interior Department has cherry-picked scientific data to support its political agenda and has too often failed to fully disclose that information to the public, Republicans and energy industry advocates argued at a House Natural Resources panel hearing yesterday.

The Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee hearing examined the agency’s use of science to support decisions related to seismic oil and gas surveys in the Atlantic Ocean, sage grouse protections in the West, and its disclosure of data on oil and gas leasing and permitting.

"In some cases, just getting information from the Department of the Interior has been like pulling teeth," said subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). "The way the Department of the Interior is managing multiple-use principles on federal lands is not engendering public trust."


The agency did not send a witness to the hearing, Lamborn said. Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said the committee did not notify the agency until a week ago.

Kershaw said agency leaders told the committee it would send a witness but would need more information about the scope of the hearing and an additional week to identify the right witness and prepare the individual.

"The committee did not respond to our reply or request to supply more guidance about the purpose of the hearing and therefore no department witness was present [that day]," she said.

Democrats on the panel argued that lawmakers should have directed their scrutiny to the oil and gas industry and its willingness to disclose information related to chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, air emissions, water management and impacts on communities.

"When Interior publishes a regulation, it releases hundreds if not thousands of pages of supporting information clearly explaining why it made those choices," ranking member Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) said.

"You can disagree with the department’s conclusions, as many often do, but the fact is that the information is out there, laid bare for all to see," he said. "However, the same cannot be said for the oil and gas industry."

Oil and gas industry advocates who testified yesterday have previously criticized the Obama administration’s energy policies on public lands and waters. And they argued that the science undergirding those policies has been shoddy or unavailable to the public.

Peter Seidel, director of marine acquisition for TGS, a seismic data firm seeking to explore in the Atlantic, said Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had set "unrealistic mitigation measures" for seismic exploration "based on inaccurately presumed effects."

The seismic surveys use air guns to find untapped mineral deposits below the ocean bottom so companies can decide where to drill. BOEM in February 2014 finalized a plan to allow seismic testing from the shores of Delaware to Florida (E&ENews PM, Feb. 27, 2014).

But it closed certain waters to protect migrating endangered right whales, imposed mandatory acoustic monitoring and expanded shutdown protocols for when whales or dolphins swim near survey vessels.

Seidel said those mitigation measures appear based on pressure from outside interest groups rather than science. He also faulted the National Marine Fisheries Service for slow-walking seismic surveying permits because of an emerging model from Duke University for gauging impacts on wildlife.

Before BOEM may issue a seismic survey permit, NMFS must issue an incidental harassment authorization (IHA) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to verify that the activity won’t affect species or stocks.

Duke’s model on the location of marine wildlife only recently became available to the public, Seidel said.

"The lack of transparency in how NMFS has used the Duke model to consider IHA applications is a prime example of regulatory uncertainty and government run amok," Seidel said. "The MMPA provides no basis for delaying the process of applications so that NMFS can wait for the best possible information to become the best available information."

Separately, Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, said her group had to file three Freedom of Information Act lawsuits and four Data Quality Act challenges to obtain "basic information" from Interior about its sage grouse protection plans.

She accused Interior of ignoring important scientific data and for exaggerating how human activities threaten the bird while downplaying threats from natural causes.

Sgamma also accused the Bureau of Land Management of withholding data on its leasing and permitting of oil and gas wells on federal lands and manipulating the data to mask its management record.

"Data is key to the public understanding oil and gas operations on federal lands," she said, adding that BLM’s presentation of permitting data appears "more about covering political mistakes at the department rather than actually releasing good information."