Republican pushes subpoena in drilling ban probe

A top House Republican is pushing to subpoena government documents he says could shed light on how the Obama administration justified its five-month ban on deep-water drilling in the wake of the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., launched the subpoena push today, after what he described as months of stalling by Interior Department officials. The House Committee on Natural Resources that Hastings heads opened an inquiry into the drilling ban and a separate probe into the government’s handling of a coal production regulation more than a year ago.

The Natural Resources Committee will vote on whether to issue subpoenas for documents tied to both probes next Wednesday.

“Extensive time and effort has been dedicated to working with and prompting the Obama administration to comply with these legitimate oversight requests for documents and communications,” Hastings said in a memo to fellow Republicans. “The administration has taken deliberate steps to avoid openness and prevent disclosure of information about these actions.”

But administration officials insisted they have cooperated with the panel. Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher said 126 documents — totaling more than 970 pages — had already been provided to the committee in connection with its drilling ban investigation. “We will continue to be responsive and engaged in the ongoing dialogue with the committee,” Fetcher said.

The panel’s drilling ban probe is tied to a report the Interior Department issued on May 27, 2010, just five weeks after the lethal blowout of BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. The document included a recommendation for a six-month ban on some drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and arguably laid the foundation for a subsequent moratorium on most deep-water exploration.

The ban, which lasted from May until it was lifted in October 2010, halted most deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, while oil was still gushing from BP’s well and after the well was contained.

Critics of the ban said the report was packaged and edited so that it appeared professional engineers and industry experts who peer reviewed the document signed off on the recommendations — including the urging for a moratorium.

But eight of 15 experts named in the report insisted they did not endorse the recommendation for a ban on drilling and said the recommendation was added only after they reviewed the document.

Administration officials have insisted that they never meant to mislead the public. And the Interior Department later edited the report to reflect the concerns.

The Natural Resources Committee isn’t the first body to look into the handling of the report. The Interior Department’s inspector general concluded in November 2010 that the White House edited the document so that it inaccurately appeared the experts backed the proposed ban. The report could have been “more clearly worded,” but it appears there was no intention to mislead, according to Inspector General Mary Kendall.