Louisiana Senator pens oyster rider

03/28/2013

A Louisiana lawmaker is continuing to press his case that Drake’s Bay Oyster Company deserves a second chance. Republican Senator David Vitter, who introduced legislation that would extend the embattled cannery’s lapsed Drakes Estero lease, is now questioning the Obama administration’s nominee to lead the Department of the Interior on her ties to an environmental group that opposes Drake’s Bay and last week joined Senator Dianne Feinstein to propose an amendment to the federal budget that would give symbolic succor to the company.

That amendment, which would have encouraged but not mandated a permit extension, failed to reach the floor for a vote over the weekend as the Senate worked through the night to pass, on a mostly party-line vote, its first budget resolution since 2009. That year the Interior appropriations bill included an amendment drafted by Senator Feinstein that authorized Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to issue a new 10-year permit for Drake’s Bay. His decision last year to let the permit lapse is the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit, and courts have allowed the oyster farm to stay open at least until May while they consider arguments.

The president’s nominee to replace Mr. Salazar, Sally Jewell, the chief executive of Washington state-based Recreational Equipment Inc., has won some bipartisan support for both being a passionate advocate of the great outdoors and having experience as an oil company engineer for the former Mobil Oil Corp. In a letter last week Senator Vitter asked Ms. Jewell about her role as a board member of the National Parks Conservation Association.

“The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) is involved in a vicious campaign against the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, a small business in Northern California, which seeks to continue an oyster farm that has existed for nearly 100 years,” Senator Vitter wrote. “I am concerned that the campaign sought to create a false impression of the Company’s activities and is the type of environmental extremism that distorts science in an attempt to achieve a specific outcome. Please provide me with background on your efforts with NPCA to shut down the Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Additionally, because of the potential for an appearance of impropriety, will you recuse yourself from any decision related to the Drakes Bay Oyster Company if you are confirmed?”

Cause of Action, the government watchdog group that is helping to sponsor oysterman Kevin Lunny’s legal defense, also expressed “serious concerns about Mrs. Jewell’s plans for the Department of the Interior,” their executive director, Dan Epstein, said in a statement.

In her confirmation hearings earlier this month Ms. Jewell said she had no role in litigation strategy at NPCA and affirmed the importance of a “balanced” approach to conservation. “It’s very important that we take a very balanced approach to both energy development and resource development with conservation and recreation,” Ms. Jewell said. “And I don’t think it’s an either/or. I really think it’s a both/and. By knowing the places that we all collectively believe need to be set aside and protected and recognizing the importance to our economy and our communities of appropriate, safe and responsible development of those resources.”

If confirmed, Ms. Jewell said she would consult with federal ethics officials on whether she would need to recuse herself on issues relating to NPCA’s legal positions. Ms. Jewell’s nomination has been forwarded to the Senate for a full vote, which is expected to take place shortly after their current two-week spring recess ends. Senator Vitter’s spokesman did not return a request for comment during the recess, nor did the White House or the NPCA.

Senator Vitter’s other bill, which an aide said would require the government to issue a new Drake’s Bay permit while reducing a host of environmental regulations, now has 23 Republican cosponsors and has been referred to a congressional committee.