House panel backs another subpoena over offshore drilling freeze

The committee voted 26-17 Wednesday to authorize new subpoenas, with only Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) joining Republicans in support. No Republicans opposed it.

Democrats on Wednesday cast the investigation as a frivolous fishing expedition, and argued the panel should instead be probing the BP spill itself in more detail and seeking testimony from BP CEO Robert Dudley.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, called the GOP probe “trivial” and a waste of time.

“We are turning congressional oversight into ‘track changes’ for a two-year-old report, when we should be investigating the spill itself,” Markey said.

But GOP critics say there are several unanswered questions about the report. They question the rigor of an Interior inspector general inquiry, which found that the error stemmed from late-night edits by the White House, and concluded that Interior hadn’t intended to mislead. 

Mary Kendall, Interior's acting inspector general who has faced criticism from Hastings, is scheduled to appear before the committee Thursday.

Hastings has sought testimony from five Interior aides including Steve Black, an adviser to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar who was involved in back-and-forth edits on the 2010 report with the White House, and Walter Cruickshank, a senior official in Interior’s offshore drilling branch.

The Washington State Republican hopes to have them appear at a hearing in September, and had previously sought their testimony for a hearing this month.

The GOP probe has already included earlier subpoenas.

While Republicans are questioning the drafting of the 2010 Interior report, they have more broadly used the probe to bash the deepwater drilling freeze that followed the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Republicans, oil industry groups and some conservative Democrats called the moratorium an overreaction that was economically harmful to the Gulf Coast.

Interior officials said the freeze was vital to address safety problems that the disaster laid bare. The ban was lifted October of 2010 and permitting under toughened safety rules began again in early 2011, albeit at a slower pace than before the spill.

This post was updated at 3:25 p.m. and 6:20 p.m.