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Department of Interior Fails Transparency Tests, House Subcommittee Told

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has failed to inject more transparency into its regulatory processes affecting the oil/natural gas industry, witnesses told a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Thursday in Washington, DC.

They cited DOI’s handling of greater sage grouse protections and leasing programs for various public lands. Stakeholders in the creation and use of regulatory scientific and economic information resist making more of that data readily available, according to a Washington, DC-based regulatory/economics consultant, Richard Belzer.

"Improving the transparency of regulatory agency work products is more difficult because peer review has been misused as a presumptive validator of fundamental correctness," Belzer told the subcommittee.

DOI's transparency issues may not be ranked as high as they are in other parts of the Obama administration, "but they will have profound impacts on land-use policy well into the future," said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president for government and public affairs at Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA), testifying before the subcommittee.

Sgamma said DOI policies and rules have been put in place "in a less-than-transparent manner" that is affecting or will have an effect on WEA's oil/gas producing members.

Zeroing in on U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversight of public lands and the sage grouse omnibus, multi-state habitat protection plans rolled out last fall, Sgamma said transparency was not applied when it came to the DOI efforts involving the U.S. oil/gas production sector.

While she cited BLM for allegedly failing to conduct "comprehensive socioeconomic impacts" in national environmental protection documents ranging from resource management plans to master leasing plans, Sgamma saved some of her strongest criticism for the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). She claimed it agreed to two "closed-door mega settlements" with environmental groups WildEarth Guardians (WEG) and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

"DOI's justification for entering into the closed-door settlement agreements that excluded elected officials, states, localities and other stakeholders and the public was to limit future listing petitions and litigation," Sgamma said, adding that a WEA legal analysis showed "resounding failure" to limit Endangered Species Act lawsuits.

She said 53 petitions had been filed with FWS requesting listing or uplisting from threatened to endangered 129 species, and WEG and CBD were responsible for 38, or 72%, of the petitions.

Belzer told the subcommittee that readers of peer-reviewed studies (and especially regulatory agencies that rely on them) should not assume that statistically significant results are valid. "This is especially so for studies with small numbers of subjects," he said.

"The quality of agency peer review would improve if Congress deterred agencies from relying on non-transparent information."

Another witness, Peter Seidel, representing the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, went beyond DOI to also include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Fisheries, claiming both federal agencies are involved in the offshore oil/gas permitting process. Seidel zeroed in on geological and geophysical activities on the outer continental shelf.

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