House panel OKs subpoena of Obama administration over drilling report

A House committee voted along party lines Wednesday to subpoena the Obama administration for documents about a controversial offshore drilling safety report and planned rules to limit environmental damage from Appalachian coal mining.

The 23-17 Natural Resources Committee vote escalates a battle between Republicans and the Interior Department about the documents specifically, and White House energy and environmental policies more broadly.

“Congress has an obligation to the American people to conduct oversight and take a careful, thoughtful look at the administration’s policies and actions,” Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said Wednesday ahead of the vote.

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He said the panel has shown “tremendous patience” in seeking Interior compliance with document requests for more than a year.

But Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the committee, called the planned subpoenas a politically motivated “fishing expedition.”

“Using subpoenas to score political points in a policy dispute is inappropriate,” Markey said, and argued Interior has undertaken “extensive efforts” to comply with the document requests.

The Wednesday vote authorized issuance of subpoenas in the future. Hastings said Interior would be the primary target of the planned subpoenas, which were not circulated before the votes, but suggested they could target other agencies as well.

"The Department of the Interior is absolutely the primary target after defying requests for complete cooperation for over a year, but there are other document requests pending to other agencies, including the EPA and CEQ,” he said. Markey said the panel was voting to provide a "blank check."

Republicans allege Interior has not been forthcoming about a 2010 drilling safety report, issued weeks after the BP oil spill began, that incorrectly implied that outside engineers consulted for the study had endorsed a six-month ban on deepwater drilling.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar subsequently apologized to the peer reviewers.

Interior’s inspector general noted in a late 2010 report that Interior officials interviewed said they never intended to leave the impression that the reviewers backed the ban.

The drilling safety report was the subject of middle-of-the-night, back-and-forth edits between the White House and Interior. (Much more on that here.)

Republicans have called the roughly half-year drilling freeze that ended in October of 2010 an overreaction. Deepwater permitting began again in February of 2011 under toughened Interior drilling safety rules, but the pace of approvals is slower than the pre-spill era.

Republicans also are upset about Interior plans to re-write regulations issued at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration, rules that environmentalists and other critics say don’t protect streams from so-called mountaintop removal mining.

“The Committee is examining serious questions regarding why this rewrite was initiated, how the rulemaking process is being managed, whether political implications are unduly influencing the process, the dismissal of the contractor, and the impacts the rewritten regulation would have on jobs, the economy, and coal and energy production in America,” Hastings said.

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said after the vote that the department has sought to comply with the committee probe, noting Interior has "produced thousands of pages of documents, and made clear that we intend to continue to cooperate with the Committee’s legitimate oversight interests."

But he also called the document requests too intrusive. "We ... have expressed serious and longstanding institutional concerns about the Committee’s efforts to compromise Executive Branch deliberations, particularly regarding pending Executive Branch decision making," he said.

The pre-vote debate Wednesday veered into a larger battle over energy policy.

Republicans say the administration places too many limits on fossil fuel production. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) said Interior’s plan to re-write the stream protection rule is part of a broader “war on coal” that includes newly proposed carbon emissions standards for new power plants.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) called the subpoenas a “thinly veiled attempt” to thwart new mining safeguards, and noted that mountaintop mining practices have buried thousands of miles of Appalachian streams.

“The majority continues to fight to allow disastrous policies to continue,” Pallone said.

Fetcher, the Interior aide, called GOP attacks on the mining regulation premature, noting it has not even been proposed yet.

"The expense of significant resources on premature oversight threatens to jeopardize the Executive Branch’s ongoing deliberations. Once we do put forward a proposed rule to better protect communities and water supplies from the adverse impacts of surface coal mining, we will provide ample opportunity for the public, industry, stakeholders, Congress, and others to provide input that will help us develop a balanced and responsible rule," he said.

—This post was updated at 12:02 p.m. and 12:11 p.m.