Interior Department: Oil and gas permitting delays likely under sequestration

02 22, 2013 by The Times-Picayune

The Obama administration is warning of delays in processing permits for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico if mandatory cuts go into effect on March 1. Both President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans continued to blame each other for the impasse that, if unresolved by next Friday, will trigger $85 billion in cuts in federal programs during the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.

The only sign of progress Thursday were telephone conversations, the first in weeks, between the president and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that the automatic cuts triggered by the sequester will hurt the national economy. But they disagree on how to prevent them.

According to a memo from outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, sequestration would slow down the issuance of permits, environmental reviews and inspections in the Gulf region for oil and gas projects. The memo says that some of the 550 exploration plans or development coordination documents could be put at risk.

The Interior Department employs about 475 regulatory workers in the Gulf Region.

There was no mention in the Interior Department document about how many, if any, of those workers would be subject to a furlough.

On Wednesday, the Army announced detailed impacts of the sequester, including 3,137 Army civilian workers in Louisiana that would be put on furlough for one day a week beginning at the end of April. A furlough would result in a 20 percent reduction in take-home pay, and, at least for the Army, last 22 weeks.

Though many federal employees are expected to be furloughed without pay for one day a week, no furloughs are currently contemplated for the 1,200 workers at the National Finance Center, one of the state's biggest federal employers, according to a Department of Agriculture official familiar with agency plans.

Last year, the center processed biweekly paychecks to 655,000 federal employees at more than 170 agencies.

The Army Corps of Engineers in Washington hasn't yet calculated how many employees will be furloughed, an agency spokesman said Thursday. But it has begun discussing a furlough program with its employee unions.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, said he fears cuts in flood control, coastal restoration and navigational projects. He said those cuts would be devastating for the New Orleans region.

According to sequester information compiled by Senate Democratic staffers from administration and agency sources:

217 Louisiana teachers could lose their jobs as a result of cuts to the federal Title 1 program that provides assistance to schools with large numbers of children from low-income families. The staff report also estimates that 3,640 fewer special education students in Louisiana will receive support.

Cuts are also expected in assistance for child care, Head Start, and federal funding that provides equipment for First Responders and federal food nutrition and meat and poultry facility inspections.

During an interview with talk show host Al Sharpton Thursday, President Obama called on Republicans to negotiate a balanced plan that includes spending cuts and elimination of some special tax breaks for the wealthy to prevent sequestration. He said sequestration would cause serious job losses, hurt vital federal services and damage the economy - something he says can be averted with a balanced plan that includes thoughtful budget cuts and elimination of some tax subsidies for the wealthy.

'My sense is that their (Republicans) basic view is that nothing is important enough to raise taxes on wealthy individuals or corporations and they would prefer to see these kinds of cuts that could slow down our recovery over closing tax loopholes," Obama said.

Republicans said they've already agreed to tax increases by not extending Bush tax cuts for wealthy families. They said the president's criticism of Republicans implies he's not interested in a settlement.

"The American people expect more of their president than petty cheap shots," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner. "We can have serious disagreements about how best to create jobs without asserting nefarious motives."