Inspector Oversees Nonexistent Pipeline
Inspector Oversees Nonexistent Pipeline
H. JOSEF HEBERT
Dec. 22, 1991
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Michael Bayer is one of the government's most senior inspectors: He makes $115,300, has a staff of three and a budget of $338,000. What's his job? He oversees construction of a natural gas pipeline that isn't being built.
''They issue four reports a year about the non-operation of an unbuilt pipeline,'' complained Rep. Phil Sharp, D-Ind., chairman of a House energy and power subcommittee.
In its heyday a decade ago, the Office of Federal Inspector for the Alaska Natural Gas Transportation System had more than 150 employees and a $21 million budget.
It was charged with monitoring and inspecting the construction of one of the largest energy projects ever - a $10 billion natural gas pipeline from Alaska's North Slope, through Canada into the United States.
But a glut of natural gas has made the Alaska gas uneconomical and construction was abandoned a decade ago. Completed legs of the proposed pipeline have carried Canadian gas into the United States since the early 1980s, but there are no plans to complete the entire project anytime soon - perhaps never.
In a recent 90-minute interview at his office in the bowels of the Energy Department, Bayer said his job includes a full range of duties. However, he said only a small part of his day is spent on business actually related to the inspector's office.
Instead, he said, he spends ''about 85 percent of my time'' on special projects for senior Energy Department officials.
''I'm probably the cheapest consultant that they've got,'' he joked at one point, but declined repeatedly to discuss any internal reports he's produced.
In a letter to Sharp, who wants the agency abolished, Energy Secretary James Watkins agreed the inspector's office ''is no longer a needed organization.'' Watkins said he would favor combining its duties with another DOE office as it had been in the Reagan administration.
But, even if he wants to, Watkins can't close the office because the inspector reports directly to the president and Congress.
During much of the past decade, the inspector's job was held by various senior DOE officials as an added duty.
''It was a part-time job for me,'' said Ted Garrish, an assistant vice president for the American Nuclear Energy Council who as an assistant energy secretary also was responsible for the pipeline inspector's office from 1986 to 1989.
Congress, despite the questions raised by a few lawmakers, has been anything but hostile to Bayer's office.
When Bayer, a longtime Washington insider who worked in Bush's 1988 election campaign, was nominated by the president last year, his Senate confirmation breezed through without debate. His salary ranks with the undersecretary of energy, the No. 3 person in the department.
Congress also has increased the inspector's budget each of the last five years, although the likelihood of the pipeline being built has grown more remote each year.
Last year, the office received $267,000 although it had $160,000 left over from the previous year.
In April, Bayer sought - and was granted - more money for this fiscal year, telling the House appropriations committee that his coming on board as full- time inspector ''has strained the budget fairly significantly.'' A House- approved $438,000 for the 1992 fiscal year later was cut to $380,000 in negotiations with the Senate.
The only public documents issued by Bayer's office this year were two reports - each three typewritten pages - in May and August. Both were largely reviews of regulatory activities involving other agencies.
''Almost everything I've been involved in to date remains pre-decisional or in some cases it's classified information,'' said Bayer, sitting at a small desk in his windowless office. The walls are scarred and bare except for a calendar. A receptionist's desk was barren, except for a telephone.
Pressed for more details, Bayer perused two typewritten pages he had prepared - ''My own little inventory,'' he says - of a dozen projects on which he said he had worked.
He quickly assesses each of the dozen entries, describing some as ''massive,'' ''very big'' or ''requiring an extraordinary amount of analysis.''
But Bayer said he couldn't describe his work beyond that and declined to show a reporter the list or to say specifically who in the department had asked for his assistance.
There are, he says, ''pressing and significant issues'' to be resolved with the Canadians.
What are these issues?
''It's something within my responsibilities and it's a problem we discovered in Canada,'' he said. ''And I'm really not at liberty to tell you.''