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NOAA science appointment: no end to the hold

VitterDoney-260.jpgEarlier this week US Senator David Vitter released his hold on a senior administration official after his demands regarding offshore drilling were met, but the Louisiana Republican has no intention of lifting a similar hold on the White House’s nominee for the position of chief scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Vitter (pictured on the left) had promised to hold up the confirmation process for Dan Ashe as head of the US Fish and Wildlife Service until the Interior Department issued at least 15 drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico, which was subjected to a temporary moratorium as a result of the Deepwater Horizon spill last year. That happened this week, and Vitter promptly fulfilled his promise.

Back in December Vitter also put a hold on White House nominee Scott Doney (pictured on the right) as chief scientist at NOAA due to concerns about the moratorium on offshore drilling. Doney’s nomination has been pending since last August, and there is no end in sight. Vitter’s objection to Doney stems back to a report by the Interior Inspector General which alleged that the White House interfered in a peer-reviewed report on the Deepwater Horizon incident (see our coverage here).

Although the moratorium is over and permitting has recommenced, spokesman Luke Bolar confirmed this week that the senator is still waiting for Steve Black, counselor to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, to testify before the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee (the other official Vitter requested to testify, Carol Browner, has left the White House). Asked if there was any movement on that request at the Interior Department, six months after the original hold, Bolar had a simple response: “I don’t know.”

The impact of the delay is unclear. Although the position is not technically new, it has been empty since 1996, suggesting that NOAA knows how to get along without a chief scientist. Contacted by Nature, Doney referred questions to NOAA, as did a spokesman for the Interior Department. NOAA officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

To make matters more confusing, the department being held to account – the Interior Department – does not actually oversee NOAA. That duty falls to the Commerce Department. As it happens, the White House also nominated John Bryson – who comes with a unique blend of industry and environmental experience – to replace Gary Locke as commerce secretary earlier this week. Not surprisingly, Republicans are expected to try to block that appointment, too.

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