House GOP subpoenas Interior Department over drilling ban report

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) on Tuesday subpoenaed the Interior Department for documents about a 2010 report that erroneously suggested that outside engineers had endorsed a deepwater drilling freeze following the BP oil spill.

The subpoena sets a deadline of April 10 for Interior to turn over documents to the panel.

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“President Obama pledged unprecedented transparency, and it’s regrettable that a Congressional subpoena is necessary to obtain documents pertaining to the administration’s report that recommended a six-month drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico,” Hastings said in a statement Tuesday.

The committee, in a March 28 party-line vote, had given Hastings broad authority to subpoena the Obama administration for information about the Interior report and a separate proposal to toughen regulation of Appalachian coal mining.

The subpoena issued Tuesday seeks documents including communication among a series of Interior officials between April 26, 2010, and June 30, 2010, about the May 2010 drilling safety report that recommended a six-month drilling freeze.

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

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar subsequently apologized to the engineers about the mistaken impression the report left that they had endorsed a drilling freeze.

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 and some conservative Democrats called the freeze an overreaction to the BP spill that began in April 2010 and dumped more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over several months.

They allege the drilling ban caused unnecessary economic pain in the region, while Obama administration officials say it was needed in the wake of the devastating spill, which prompted Interior to overhaul and toughen drilling oversight.

The ban was lifted in October 2010 but permitting did not begin again until February 2011, and at a reduced pace as the Interior Department demanded that companies show compliance with beefed-up standards.

The subpoena also seeks documents that Republicans allege Interior is seeking to block the inspector general from providing to Hastings’ committee.

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher on Tuesday said Interior has sought to cooperate with the committee while alleging the document requests are too broad.

"In response to the committee’s inquiries over the past year, we have repeatedly testified, responded to the committee’s requests, produced thousands of pages of documents and made clear that we intend to continue to cooperate with the committee’s legitimate oversight interests. However, we also 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 in a statement.