House, Interior spar over drilling subpoena

The House Natural Resources Committee balked Tuesday night at the Interior Department’s efforts to comply with a GOP subpoena over a 2010 report on the deepwater drilling moratorium imposed after the BP oil spill.

“The department has failed to comply with the subpoena and its response is extremely disappointing given the costly toll the Obama administration’s drilling moratorium imposed on thousands of workers and American energy production,” committee spokesman Spencer Pederson said in a statement.

The statement signals that the Obama administration is heading toward another high-profile clash with House Republicans seeking sensitive internal documents. The White House has sparred with Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee for months over the scope of its subpoena for documents related to the $535 million loan guarantee to failed solar company Solyndra.

Tuesday marked the deadline under the House Natural Resources Committee’s subpoena for Interior to provide all internal communications on the report, which erroneously suggested that outside engineers had endorsed the drilling moratorium.

The committee, in a March 28 party-line vote, gave Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) broad authority to subpoena the department for information about the report. Hastings issued the subpoena last week.

Interior forked over 164 pages of documents related to the report Tuesday night and said more would be coming later this week. The department also offered an “in camera” review, in which staff can read documents without keeping hard copies, of two May 2010 drafts of the report.

In a letter to Hastings Tuesday, the department said it was “committed” to working with the committee on its investigation into the report, but blasted the panel for issuing the subpoena.

“[T]he department is disappointed that after nearly a year of working with your staff to understand and accommodate the committee’s asserted interests in the [report], we have reached a point where the committee has taken the unnecessary and precipitous step of issuing a subpoena, notwithstanding the department’s continued good-faith efforts to work with the committee,” Christopher Mansour, director of Interior’s Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, said in the letter.

Mansour said the committee’s subpoena is “broad and ill-defined,” making it difficult for the department to comply.

“[W]e must draw your attention to the varied and unsettled scope of the committee’s articulated request, which continues to hinder the department’s ability to respond to the multiple requests, including the subpoena,” he said, adding that the committee often has not outlined its “specific oversight interest” in the documents.

Mansour added that the subpoena compromises confidential executive-branch deliberations. 

“Moreover, the department has an obligation to protect the integrity and confidentiality of the executive branch’s implementation of the law and its deliberative process,” he said. “It has long been recognized that advisers who expect that their preliminary and unformed remarks will be made the subject of public scrutiny can be expected to be less candid in their advice, ultimately to the detriment of the executive-branch decisionmaking process.”

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said Tuesday that the department has been cooperating with the committee on its investigation for months.

“In response to the committee's inquiries, 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,” he said.

But the committee said Interior is not doing enough to comply with the subpoena.

“The department’s surreal claim that they don’t understand what is being investigated raises questions about whether they’re truly interested in living up to the president’s pledge of unprecedented transparency, or they’re maneuvering to withhold unknown amounts of information from public scrutiny and congressional review,” Pederson, the committee spokesman, said.

Republicans on the committee have been investigating the 2010 Interior report for months. The report mistakenly suggested that outside engineers backed the deepwater drilling moratorium, which was imposed in the aftermath of the spill and lifted in October 2010.

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.

Republicans and some oil-state Democrats have blasted Interior for imposing the moratorium, arguing it was an overreaction to the spill that caused extended economic damage to the region.

It’s the second subpoena issued by the committee in recent weeks. The panel also subpoenaed Interior for documents related to planned regulations to toughen oversight of Appalachian coal mining.