House sets showdown with Obama administration on drilling ban

07 19, 2012 by Fuel Fix

House Republicans are demanding that Obama administration officials testify at a hearing next week about how they justified a five-month ban on deep-water drilling imposed in the wake of the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

The move follows the issuance of an earlier congressional subpoena for documents tied to a May 2010 Interior Department report that recommended a moratorium on some drilling in the Gulf of Mexico five weeks after the lethal blowout of BP’s Macondo well.

The House Natural Resources Committee that issued the subpoena has been investigating whether 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. Eight of 15 experts named in the report insisted they did not endorse the ban recommendation and said it was added only after they reviewed the document.

Committee chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said the Obama administration has stonewalled the panel by refusing to make five Interior Department officials available to answer questions on the record.

According to Hastings, committee staff offered to conduct transcribed interviews with only two of the department officials as a compromise, but the Interior Department insisted it would agree only to off-the-record interviews about how the report was developed and what led to the drilling ban.

“The department claims they want to be forthcoming, but for well over a year, they’ve refused to provide documents in response to legitimate congressional oversight and to have officials privately answer questions on the record,” Hastings said.

Hastings scheduled the oversight hearing for Wednesday, July 25, to scrutinize how the administration decided to impose the drilling ban, whether the administration intentionally misrepresented the vies of engineering experts in order to justify the move and how the administration responded to complaints by those experts. If the five invited witnesses do not attend, the administration could face more subpoenas from Congress.

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

Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher reiterated the administration’s response on Wednesday.

“Immediately after being made aware of the error in the executive summary of the report in June, 2010, the department moved quickly to clarify the scope of the peer review and to apologize to the peer reviewers,” Fetcher said.

Michael Bromwich, the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement that oversaw offshore drilling after the Gulf oil spill, drew a distinction between concerns about the May 2010 report and questions surrounding the merits of the moratorium itself. He said Hastings’ committee was focusing on “the sideshow of how a DOI report came to inaccurately suggest that an outside panel of engineers supported the moratorium.”

“The committee is ignoring the central fact that on the merits the moratorium was a necessary and appropriate decision,” Bromwich said, noting that when the ban was imposed, oil spill response equipment was tied up in the Gulf of Mexico and new safety changes had not yet been imposed.

Critics of the drilling ban say that it was unnecessary to call a complete timeout on deep-water drilling after the Macondo well blew out and insist the moratorium went on too long, ending the jobs of offshore workers and dealing a major blow to the Gulf Coast economy.

“The moratorium had devastating economic impacts on Louisiana and the country, and we need a thorough and accurate investigation and get to the bottom of this potential cover-up,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

Fetcher noted that Interior Department officials have “repeatedly testified, responded to the committee’s requests and produced nearly two thousand pages of documents.” He said the department intends “to continue to cooperate with the committee’s legitimate oversight interest,” but said the probe involves “an ever-changing and unsettled set of requests” at the expense of taxpayer dollars.

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,” according to Inspector General Mary Kendall.