Sen. Vitter's $1 Million Hold On Science

January 26, 2012 3:03 pm ET — Brian Powell

Sen. David Vitter

This week, the White House formally withdrew its nomination of Scott Doney to be Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a 41-year-old science agency that monitors weather, the oceans and the ozone layer, among other things. Doney is a well-qualified geochemist whose nomination was already approved by a Senate committee, but whose confirmation had been delayed for over a year because of a quirk in Senate procedure that allows individual senators to singlehandedly prevent votes from taking place. In this case, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) — a major beneficiary of oil industry political contributions — has been blocking the nomination. From Science Magazine:

Under U.S. Senate rules, a single lawmaker can place a "hold" on a nomination, effectively preventing a vote. Doney's nomination had been approved by a Senate committee, but never got a vote in the full Senate after Vitter announced a hold in December 2010. In a letter to President Barack Obama, Vitter wrote that he was imposing the hold because he was "uncomfortable confirming a high-level science advisor within your administration while there remain significant outstanding concerns over scientific integrity at federal agencies and the White House, including with regard to the recent drilling moratorium and the ongoing bottleneck in permitting, which I would characterize as a continuing de facto moratorium."

At first glance, Vitter's obstruction seems petty and misplaced; after all, NOAA doesn't issue the drilling permits that Vitter is so concerned with — that's done by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). So why block the chief scientist of an agency tasked with alerting communities about incoming tornadoes and managing the nation's salmon population?

As it happens, NOAA's influence on the BOEMRE decision-making process about when and where oil companies will be able to drill offshore has been expanding in the wake of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Previously (and inexplicably), final oil exploration leasing decisions by BOEMRE (then the Minerals Management Service) did not take into account NOAA's scientific findings. The largest oil spill in history changed this relationship. From the LA Times:

The memorandum of understanding between the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), announced Monday, follows recommendations from a presidential commission investigating last year's BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The panel noted that under previous regulation regimes, NOAA's scientists had little more influence on where and how federal leases were auctioned than did the general public.

"A more robust and formal interagency consultation process is needed, with the goal of identifying precise areas that should be excluded from lease sales because of their high ecological importance or sensitivity," the panel concluded.

The agreement was announced months after Vitter's hold was placed, but it's hardly a surprise, especially after NOAA scientists presciently urged against expansions in offshore drilling just a few months before the BP tragedy. If NOAA's oceanographers were frightening to Vitter before, their rise in stature can only have solidified his resolve to prevent the president's nomination.

For Sen. Vitter's personal campaign interests, the strengthening relationship between BOEMRE and NOAA poses a serious threat. The oil and gas industry is his top contributor for the 2012 election cycle, filling his coffers with at least $580,000 already. The oil and gas sector has contributed over $1 million throughout Vitter's career. Now, their investment is paying off, as Vitter has singlehandedly obstructed both science and the democratic process.