GOP Criticism of OCS Comment Plan Appears Misdirected

Posted April 11, 2009 at 7:58am

Updated: April 12, 4:45 p.m.Republicans are crying foul over a move by the Obama administration that they say limits comment on a plan for opening the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling for oil and gas. But it appears the senior GOP officials and lawmakers expressing outrage should be directing their fire at the Bush administration instead.In a letter sent Tuesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, House Natural Resources ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) demanded that the Interior Department reinstate the ability of citizens to provide comment directly by e-mail, as was permitted under the Bush administration on a previous version of the plan. The GOP duo argued the only avenues now open for comment is via traditional mail, a cumbersome federal Web site or an appearance in person. Republicans note that during the comment period on the version of the plan proposed last year by Interior’s Minerals Management Service, a majority of comments were favorable toward opening up the OCS for drilling. They say they are concerned that changing the submission process could prompt a different result on the draft plan now up for review. Still worse from their perspective, GOP officials suspect the less direct methods of submission may be tailored to make it easier for environmental groups and other organizations opposed to the plan to dominate the process. But in comments received by e-mail on Sunday, the last MMS director under former President George W. Bush said he believed it was his decision to end the e-mail comment option. “Our limited staff was slammed, spammed, and it took a long time to categorize comments, identify duplicates etc,— wrote former MMS Director Randall Luthi. “The staff recommended using regulations.gov for the next round. It is still a way to file comments electronically. I agreed to try their recommendation.—The regulations.gov Web site is the federal site being used by the Obama administration.Republican sources snickered at the notion of the “transparency administration— dropping the easiest path for commenting on the plan. But it appears the Obama officials were responding to recommendations by the Bush administration. The effort to open up new areas to offshore drilling was one of the few issues on which Republicans were able to gain traction last fall as they sought desperately to counter a Democratic political surge that ultimately to a Democratic presidency and the party’s increased margins in the House and Senate. Interior Department spokesman Frank Quimby denied there was anything nefarious afloat and asserted that the comment process on the OCS established under Obama and Salazar not only is open but that it draws from the Bush administration. Quimby pointedly noted that the prior administration had failed to include direct e-mail as a comment option for the newest version of the plan when it published instructions for commenting as Bush left office. “If the previous administration thought that having this additional public response e-mail system was so important, why then did they not include it in the rules they published in the Jan. 21, 2009, Federal Register, telling the public how to send e-mail comments during the 2009 public comment period,— he said. “I believe the answer is because the previous administration was advised by [Minerals Management Service] staff that the use of [regulations.gov] was the best way to receive and process all e-mailed public comments and that additional systems were not needed,— he said. Several Republicans questioned why the Bush administration would try to end a method of commenting when its results favored its position on opening more of the shelf for drilling. Quimby said Salazar had taken significant steps to increase the opportunity for comment, extending the original 45-day comment period by 180 days. He added that local and state officials have not complained about the current system and that the online route has conveyed “thousands— of comments on the plan. “I can’t believe that they are taking exception,— he said. The effort to draw attention to what they believed was the Obama administration’s decision to end the e-mail option has included the House GOP leadership, senior committee members and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). “The Department’s public comment process was especially user-friendly under the Bush administration, which enabled Americans to easily submit their comments through a simple email address,— Issa and Hastings wrote in their letter to Salazar. “The Department should immediately reinstate the user-friendly email public comment system.— A spokeswoman for Hastings asserted that the discovery that it was the Bush administration, not Obama, that deleted the e-mail option doesn’t change Hastings’ view.“The Department said it extended the comment period to ensure that more Americans participate in this process,— Emily Lawrimore said.“Unfortunately, the current system doesn’t achieve this goal. Instead of using a confusing, bureaucrat-friendly system, the Department should provide a way for Americans to easily e-mail in their opinions about offshore drilling.—Gingrich serves as general chairman of American Solutions, which sponsored the “Drill Here, Drill Now— campaign that he says rounded up nearly 40,000 people to comment on the proposed plan last year. “The government that has pledged itself to unprecedented openness’ and collaboration’ with the American people has refused to provide a government e-mail address to forward public comments to,— Gingrich said in an article published Wednesday. GOP officials were eager to highlight what they view as the hypocrisy in the failure to include an e-mail option, noting that increased reliance on traditional mail or traveling to submit comments in person eats trees and pollutes the environment. “It’s ironic that environmentalists have to mail in paper, which hurts the environment,— one House Republican aide said.