This week looks to be a busy one for the Department of the Interior (DOI). Three Congressional committees have scheduled hearings, and between new twists in the Abramoff scandal and royalties mismanagement, Interior officials will have plenty of explaining to do.
On Tuesday, the Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee will meet to examine Interior’s management of offshore oil and gas royalties. Discussion is sure to turn quickly to the botched 1998-99 offshore leases that could result in the loss of several billion dollars in royalty revenues.
Also prepare for some possible awkwardness on the part of Interior officials. Just last week, Minerals Management Service (MMS) Director “Johnnie” Burton announced the promotion of Chris Oynes, the person who was entrusted with overseeing the ’98-’99 leases in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Oynes will now be in charge of MMS’ entire offshore program. This is some tough news to chew on considering that the agency has already created a new five-year plan to lease out previously-prohibited offshore areas. Meanwhile, Burton has yet to appear publicly before Congress to explain why she failed to act on the ’98-’99 leases.
Next in line, Wednesday’s hearing will mark the opening salvo of what promises to be a series of oversight hearings in the House Committee on Natural Resources. In a press release issued today, Chairman Nick Rahall stated:
“I am committed to pursuing an aggressive and comprehensive hearing schedule to delve into a host of matters that are plaguing the Interior Department. This oversight hearing is the first in what is planned as an ongoing effort in the weeks and months ahead to examine the agency across the board – from problems at the Minerals Management Service and the Bureau of Land Management, to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Rahall said.
“This Committee has an obligation, one that it has not pursued sufficiently in recent years, to ensure that the Interior Department is serving the interests of the American people and not the interests of a few well-connected individuals or well-placed bureaucrats,” Rahall continued.
The hearing, entitled “Reports, Audits and Investigations by the GAO and the IG Regarding the Department of the Interior,” certainly won’t pull any punches. Chairman Rahall made the royalty issue one of his top priorities in his “110th Congress Agenda of American Values” where he declared, “The oil and gas royalties system has never worked. Instead, it has proven to be a form of corporate welfare that has enabled oil and gas producers to undercut payments due the American people.”
Finally, to round out the week, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources meets this Thursday to look at President Bush’s fiscal year 2008 budget request for the Department of Interior. The committee will likely address the Proposed 2007-2012 Five-Year Outer-Continental Shelf (OCS) Leasing program, which still requires an Environmental Impact Statement to proceed.
When the full committee last dealt with this topic on January 25th, members raised concerns about whether the new leasing plan was even necessary considering the fact that many pre-existing leases remain undeveloped. Other issues included the potential environmental damages resulting from common drill leaks and the unreliability of dated resource estimates.
Although this week’s round of hearings is unlikely to see any new revelations or significant legislation, it definitely sets the pace for what will prove to be a long-overdue, thorough investigation into past DOI mismanagement and an earnest attempt to restore accountability.
Update: The House Committee on Natural Resources has rescheduled Wednesday's hearing for this Friday, February 16. The room remains the same. For more information, visit their calendar page.
-- John Pruett