A coalition of House lawmakers has accused the Interior Department of "deliberately" withholding comments reflecting the public's strong support for the five-year oil and natural leasing plan for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) that was drafted in the final days of the Bush administration.

Interior received approximately 530,000 comments, with the "overwhelming majority in support of offshore drilling," said Rep. Parker Griffith (R-GA) and 48 other lawmakers in a recent letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

They further cited e-mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which allegedly show that Minerals Management Service (MMS) Director Liz Birnbaum urged Interior employees to suppress information on the public's support for the leasing plan.

"We find it outrageous that members of your staff would purposely delay the release of public input from hundreds of thousands of concerned Americans. The issue of responsible offshore energy production should not be politicized and delayed through bureaucratic fiat simply because your employees do not like the result of the comments," the House lawmakers said.

"Along with President Obama, you have regularly expressed the need for a comprehensive energy plan that includes the responsible production of fossil fuels on the Outer Continental Shelf. The mounting evidence is clear; the policies and practices displayed by your employees, along with your recent decision to delay the release of a new leasing plan by three years until 2012, are not matching the rhetoric of this administration and running contrary to the will of the American people," they said.

Earlier this month Salazar told a Senate committee that "we are attempting to pull together a plan for [lease sales in] the Outer Continental Shelf that will cover both the existing current plan (2007-2012) as well as looking into the future" beyond 2012. He said he expected to release such a leasing plan this month (see NGI, March 8).

The MMS disputed the allegations that it has withheld comments. "All of the comments received on the draft proposed plan are posted and available to the public at regulations.gov and have been since a few of weeks after they were received," MMS said.

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