Senator blocks Interior official’s confirmation over drilling slowdown *updated*

Sen. David Vitter is pulling a page out of his Louisiana colleague’s playbook — for a second time — by vowing to block action on one of President Barack Obama’s nominees in a bid to speed up government approvals of offshore drilling projects.

Vitter today announced his plan to stall Obama’s nomination of Dan Ashe to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Interior Department — a tactic similar to the strategy employed by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., last year. Vitter said he wouldn’t release his hold on Ashe’s nomination until the Interior Department issues at least 15 deep-water drilling permits.

Vitter also is blocking swift action on the president’s nominee for chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Louisianians are desperate to get back to work,” Vitter said in a statement. “Filling those jobs is my top priority, and that has to come first. I love fish and wildlife, but my top priority is to stop the economic devastation caused to humans by the moratorium.”

Vitter said he is angry about what he calls a de facto moratorium on deep-water drilling that is stalling projects even though the administration lifted its official ban in October.

In the four months since that ban ended, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has not yet approved any new wells that would have been blocked by the moratorium. Administration officials say a major holdup is the industry’s compliance with a new mandate requiring them to have equipment and strategies on hand to swiftly contain a blowout in deep water.

Interior Department officials signaled they would not be forced politically into making policy decisions.

“Permits to drill are issued solely based on whether a company’s application meets rigorous safety and environmental standards — including demonstrating containment capabilities,” said Kendra Barkoff, an Interior Department spokeswoman. “BOEMRE continues to issue permits, and the bureau is working as expeditiously as is safely possible to review drilling permits as they are submitted and ensure they meet the important safety standards put in place in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

The ocean energy bureau currently reports that eight proposals for new deep-water wells are pending review at the agency.

Jim Noe, executive director of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, an industry group, said Vitter was echoing “the exasperation of industry.”

“Sen. Vitter has reaffirmed how critical it is to get back to work in the Gulf,” Noe said in a statement. “We hope that Sen. Vitter’s renewed plea to the administration for greater clarity and action in the Gulf will help compel the Department of the Interior to refocus on its statutory mandate to develop U.S. offshore resources.”

Under Senate rules and practice, any single member can use a hold to block the chamber from quickly approving legislation or nominations by “unanimous consent.” But holds don’t always indefinitely stall action; Senate leaders can get around them by scheduling debate on the blocked bill or nominee.