Bromwich and Louisiana senator square off in numbers fight

It seems like the only thing Sen. David Vitter and the nation’s top drilling regulator can agree on right now is that someone is “misleading” the public.

At issue is how quickly the government is approving offshore drilling permits — and just how many there are.

On Wednesday, Vitter accused the Obama administration of spreading “false” and “misleading” information about the backlog of offshore drilling proposals that are waiting to be reviewed by regulators at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Today, bureau director Michael Bromwich fired back and said Vitter’s claims — made in a press release and letter to administration officials — were “extraordinarily misleading.”

Bromwich and Vitter, R-La., are squaring off over a statistic embedded in a legal filing by the administration two weeks ago, which said that 270 shallow water and 52 deep-water well permit applications were pending before the agency.

That raised red flags for industry advocates, who have accused the administration of obscuring the true number of drilling applications that have been filed with the ocean energy bureau, in part because some incomplete proposals are passed between operators and regulators several times before they are formally deemed “pending.”

Vitter questioned why the numbers were “so completely inconsistent” with recent testimony from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that only seven deep-water permit applications were pending and the administration has received just 47 shallow-water proposals over the past nine months.

“It is a mathematical impossibility for your representations to be accurate, as well as the filings of the Department of Justice to be accurate,” Vitter said. “It is important for the information you provide to elected officials and the public to meet basic legal and ethical guidelines required of federal agency officials. Disseminating false or misleading information impedes the credibility of BOEMRE.”

But it’s Vitter’s permit math that doesn’t add up, Bromwich suggested. While the administration, lawmakers and industry advocates have focused on applications for permits to drill new wells in shallow and deep water, Bromwich said the legal filing referred to the entire workload facing permitting personnel in the bureau’s Gulf of Mexico office.

The stats in the legal filing therefore wrapped in not just applications for new wells, but also the number pf pending applications for permits to modify, which are used to make sometimes small changes to previous permits.

“The numbers that members of Congress have focused on are new applications,” Bromwich told a House Appropriations subcommittee. “If we wanted to start talking about applications to modify, we’ve granted thousands of those. Thousands.”

But, Bromwich said “some of them can be for relatively minor things,” and those permits don’t generally translate into new offshore development. “So we thought it was inappropriate and misleading to cite those numbers, because those are not the numbers that (lawmakers) have been interested in,” Bromwich told the panel.

“We would have criticized you if you had done that,” observed Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Colo., the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee chairman.

“And rightly so,” Bromwich added.

While the government has approved 38 new shallow-water wells since June 8, 2010 (when new safety mandates were imposed) and five new deep-water wells since the administration lifted a ban on some exploration last October, the ocean energy bureau has approved 2,481 permits to modify shallow- and deep-water projects.

Vitter has tangled with the Obama administration over offshore permitting issues before. He is using a “hold” to block swift confirmation of the president’s nomination of Dan Ashe to head the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service until at least 15 deep-water drilling permits are issued.

Asked about the stalled nomination today, Bromwich suggested that if Vitter wants to consider both permits to drill and permits to modify, the government has already satisfied his demand for 15 deep-water permits.

“If you use his numbers we have granted 2,500 applications for permits to modify,” Bromwich said. “If he thinks these numbers are extremely relevant, it would seem to me that they are relevant to his hold on Mr. Ashe.”

So who’s right in this statistical skirmish? Judge for yourself. Below are the letter Vitter sent Wednesday and the administration’s legal filing (see page 28 for the permit numbers referenced here). You also can check out the ocean energy bureau’s well permits data page, which is updated daily.