By Ben Geman - 07/06/12 09:14 PM EDT
A senior Republican says the Interior Department is stymieing a House committee probe into the deepwater drilling freeze imposed after the 2010 BP oil spill by refusing to make several officials available for interviews.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Friday, says he’s providing a “final opportunity” to establish a schedule for interviews with Interior officials to occur the week of July 16.
Hastings's effort to impose a deadline for the interviews escalates an ongoing political clash with Interior about offshore drilling.
Hastings has been probing a May 2010 Interior Department drilling safety report that mistakenly suggested a panel of outside engineers had endorsed a six-month freeze on deepwater drilling following the start of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Interior apologized to the outside reviewers for what federal officials called a mistake and not an effort to mislead. But Hastings has for months been pushing for more information, a probe that has included subpoenas to Interior and the department’s inspector general.
Click here, here and here for more on the battle over the report.
The Friday letter claims that Interior and the White House have not “fully explained” the circumstances that led to the misleading language in the report.
The new letter, in addition to demanding a schedule for the interviews, alleges that Interior is withholding documents despite the April committee subpoena.
Hastings wants committee investigators to interview five people, including Steve Black, an adviser to Salazar who was involved in back-and-forth edits on the 2010 report with the White House. The whole letter is available here.
Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher, in an email, did not directly address the demand for the interviews, but criticized the GOP probe more broadly.
“In response to the Committee's inquiries on this topic, we have repeatedly testified, responded to the Committee's requests, produced nearly two thousand pages of documents, and made clear that we intend to continue to cooperate with the Committee's legitimate oversight interests,” he said.
“This investigation, made up of an ever-changing and unsettled set of requests from the Committee, continues to spend taxpayer resources to re-litigate an issue that was resolved two years ago. The American people would be best served by passage of the legislative changes we've recommended to further enhance offshore oil and gas enforcement and safety,” Fetcher said.
House Republicans are using the probe as a platform for attacks on the half-year drilling freeze, which the new letter from Hastings calls "economically devastating."
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.
"Industry is now back to work and complying with new and more rigorous safety practices, and there are more rigs at work in the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico than at any time since May 2010," Fetcher said.
It’s not clear how Hastings could seek to enforce the mid-July timeframe for the interviews that he’s seeking.
“There are multiple options available but nothing is off the table,” said Spencer Pederson, a spokesman for Hastings, who noted the possibilities include additional subpoenas.