- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2010

A much-anticipated meeting to smooth over tensions between Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the drilling industry appeared to falter Monday as oil and gas executives, joined by Gulf state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, described Mr. Salazar’s visit to Houma, La., as all talk and little action.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, secured the meeting last week in exchange for releasing a legislative hold she had placed on President Obama’s budget director nominee. She and other advocates of offshore drilling hoped Mr. Salazar’s visit would be accompanied by a streamlined process for approving permits in the wake of the Obama administration’s decision to lift its ban on offshore drilling, which it imposed in the aftermath of the BP PLC oil spill this year.

Instead, officials said, the meeting resulted in little more than rhetoric.

“We are disappointed that the federal government gave us no commitments at this meeting,” said Jim Noe, executive director of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition. “While candid discussions are important to frame the issues, unfortunately the time for discussion has passed for many of our most expert and productive drillers in the Gulf. For them, the continual slowdown in permitting has gone situation critical.”

At issue are tougher rules imposed by Mr. Salazar when he lifted the moratorium last month. Oil and gas officials complain that the new regulations have created uncertainty and made it next to impossible to secure new drilling permits.

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Mrs. Landrieu and other members of Congress from the region are siding with the industry and have accused the administration of soft-pedaling when it comes to correcting the problem.

In a readout of the meeting provided by the Interior Department, Mr. Salazar and his colleagues assured attendees that oil and gas resources along the Gulf are “important components of our nation’s energy portfolio” but said federal regulators must ensure that they are developed safely. He promised to “continue to work with the industry and stakeholders to provide certainty and ensure that everyone understands the rules of the road.”

Michael R. Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said his agency has dedicated 20 additional employees to deal with Gulf drilling permits and has been in close consultation with representatives from the industry.

That wasn’t enough for Mrs. Landrieu, who said she was “extremely disappointed that Secretary Salazar’s presentation today failed to provide regulatory certainty and a clear path for speeding up the process of issuing drilling permits.”

She vowed to use “every one” of the tools available to the state’s congressional delegation to pressure the administration to lift the “de facto” moratorium. “I will keep the pressure on President Obama, Secretary Salazar and the rest of this administration until people in the Gulf get back to work.”

Added Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican: “All of us from Louisiana hoped to hear some new policy, some permitting breakthrough, maybe a handful of new permits approved. But we heard none of that — absolutely nothing.”

Asked about cold reception to the meeting, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department said, “We are going to let our readout speak for itself.”