by Phil Taylor, Environment & Energy reporter
This story was originally published by Environment & Energy Daily, and republished here with permissions — Ed.
A House Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday on the Bureau of Land Management’s renewable energy programs erupted into a partisan shouting match after a Republican leader accused an agency official of misleading the panel.
The hearing of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations reviewed a newly released Government Accountability Office report that found flaws in BLM’s ability to collect and maintain the bonds required to cover the cost of reclaiming projects in case a company goes belly-up.
GAO found that about one-third of BLM-issued rights of way for wind and solar projects were underbonded by as much as $15 million, putting U.S. taxpayers at risk. It also found BLM improperly handled bonds. A BLM employee in Wyoming told GAO that someone had mistakenly shredded several bonds that had been kept in a safe at the Rawlins field office because he or she did not know what they were.
BLM Deputy Director Steve Ellis yesterday testified that upon learning of GAO’s finding, he ordered BLM’s acting state director in Wyoming to conduct an internal review of the allegedly shredded bonds.
He was told no bonds had been shredded, he said.
“She said the bonds are not missing,” Ellis said. “All the bonds are accounted for.”
The Interior Department’s inspector general has opened an investigation into the issue, he added.
But that answer was unsatisfactory for subcommittee Chairman Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who pressed Ellis on whether he personally knew that the bonds had not been shredded.
“It’s a crime to testify untruthfully before a congressional committee,” Gohmert said, his voice beginning to rise.
“If you don’t know, you better say ‘I don’t know,'” he added. “Is it your testimony that no bonds were ever shredded?”
That’s when things began to get testy.
Gohmert repeatedly asked Ellis for his personal knowledge of the alleged incident, and Ellis kept relaying what he’d been told by the BLM’s acting state director. Gohmert accused Ellis of “misleading the committee.”
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) eventually cut in.
“I’ve just heard you interrupt the witness, I think, no less than 10 times,” Huffman said.
Gohmert said Huffman was “out of order,” to which Huffman replied, “The chairman is out of order.”
“Let him answer,” Huffman added. “You can shout on YouTube anytime you want.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), the panel’s ranking member, said the issue at hand — whether or why bonds were improperly shredded at the Wyoming office — was a matter of “hearsay, period.”
“Badgering the witness today isn’t going to get us any further,” she said.
Gohmert said his inquiry was on point since, in his view, BLM had evaded questions he and committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) had sent the agency in a May 1 letter seeking additional details on the alleged shredding incident.
“It’s like Interior is trying to gloss over the entire issue,” he said. “I am so tired of government officials hiding behind some other answer and not doing their jobs.”
Huffman tangled with Gohmert again later in the hearing, accusing the chairman of running a “Benghazi hearing.”
“Never have I seen so much hostility and bullying and animus directed at something that was just so disproportionately, relatively insignificant, frankly, in the scheme of things,” Huffman said.
Gohmert called Huffman’s remark “an improper accusation under the House rules” and asked that his “words be taken down.”
But behind all the verbal sparring were deep partisan divides over the Obama administration’s support of renewable energy.
To Republicans, the flaws GAO exposed in BLM’s bonding requirements were evidence that the government was giving preferential treatment to clean energy at the expense of fossil fuels.
“It is still unclear whether these problems were merely a symptom of an agency that was in over its head, or if these breaks on binding requirements were part of an effort by the administration to coddle a preferred industry,” Gohmert said in his opening statement.
Dingell noted that no renewable energy developers have abandoned their projects on public lands and that BLM plans to address all five of GAO’s bonding recommendations in a final rulemaking later this year.
“There are bigger fish to fry here,” she said, pointing to the issue of “self-bonding” by large coal companies, a practice she said could put taxpayers at far greater risk than a wind farm or solar array.
Huffman accused Republicans of being “strangely silent about dirty fossil energy projects.” He noted that BLM has not updated its bonding requirements for oil and gas projects for at least 50 years and that “we’re looking at a pretty sizable taxpayer exposure for orphaned wells.”
BLM has pending rulemakings to raise or establish minimum bonds both for renewable energy and oil and gas.
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