Interior Report on Drilling Moratorium Produces Sound and Fury in House Hearing

House Natural Resources Committee chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash, leads a committee hearing on Jan. 26, 2011.National Journal

The House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday devoted two and a half hours to grilling Interior Department officials over a two-year-old report that led to a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The hearing was the apex of an ongoing political battle between the committee and the Interior Department over the report, which House Republicans have claimed gave the impression that the drilling freeze was supported by an independent panel of engineers, when it was not. An investigation by Interior's inspector general concluded, however, that the administration did not intentionally misrepresent the report.

After months of wrangling by Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., to obtain testimony from Interior officials on the issue, Republicans on the panel finally got their chance on Thursday when the department sent Neal Kemkar, special assistant to the Interior secretary's counsel, and Mary Katherine Ishee, who was deputy director for the former Minerals Management Service when the moratorium report was issued in 2010. The result was largely political theater.

GOP committee members grilled Kemkar and Inshee on the meanings of words used in e-mails exchanged among Interior officials, on the intent of the administration in imposing the six-month moratorium, and even suggested that the two witnesses be held in contempt of Congress for not providing documents they said they did not have authority to release. Democrats, meanwhile, repeatedly questioned the point of having the hearing in the first place, argued that the committee should be holding hearings on the spill itself, and called for points of order that disrupted the hearing.

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"The administration falsely stated in their report that the moratorium was reviewed and supported by engineering experts, but we all know that wasn't true," Hastings said at the start of the hearing. "The people in the Gulf deserve to know how and why that happened."

Natural Resources ranking member Edward Markey, D-Mass., called the panel's investigation "a distraction from the real damage of the BP spill." Markey added, "This is just a waste of our time and we should be working on much more important things."

Things came to a head when Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., suggested that Kemkar and Ishee should be held in contempt of Congress for not providing subpoenaed documents to the committee. Both witnesses argued that they had no authority to provide the documents to the committee, noting that Interior's Office of the Solicitor General had directed them not to do so. But McClintock argued that subpoenas require officials to comply even if they are ordered otherwise by superiors.

Hastings said that the committee would consider McClintock's suggestion, noting that the "committee intends to go as far as we need to" to get those documents from the administration.

Lawmakers said they were hoping to get to the bottom of the editing of the report, but Rep. Jeffrey Landry, R-La., summed up the primary aim of the hearing — to criticize the administration's moratorium and drilling policies in the Gulf of Mexico. "The reason we are here is to show the American people that this government hurt them in the pocketbook," Landry said.