Committee approves drilling ban subpoenas

Subpoena power: Committee seeks more information on drilling ban

Conservative lawmakers on Wednesday stepped up the pressure on the Obama administration to release more information about the six-month deep-water drilling suspension following the 2010 Macondo oil spill.

In a party-line vote, the House Natural Resources Committee voted 23-17 to give Chairman Doc Hastings subpoena power for documents showing how the government came to the decision and whether it falsely claimed support from experts who didn’t support the idea. The ban was lifted in October 2010.

“Thousands of American jobs and American energy production have or will be impacted by these Obama administration policies,” Hastings, a Republican from Washington state who has pushed the issue for over a year, said in a statement. “Serious questions remain regarding the administration’s actions.”

At issue is the Obama administration’s May 2010 decision to put a six-month suspension on new deep-water drilling, which was one of the recommendations of an in-depth evaluation of Gulf drilling safety that drew from a range of experts including members of the National Academy of Engineering.

A number of those experts later wrote back to the administration saying that while they contributed to the report, they never endorsed the moratorium.

Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the panel’s leading Democrat, called the effort a “fishing expedition”, saying in a rebuttal statement that the administration had already forked over roughly 1000 pages of documents on the issue but shared none with their Democratic counterparts.

“The majority’s escalating requests seem to be more about harassing and tying up the administration rather than finding answers to important questions,” he said.

A Republican committee spokesman said the documents from the administration provided "bits and pieces" and "heavily redacted" results to its request for documents, which included emails, calendar entries, prior drafts and meeting materials pertaining to the situation.

A prior investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general examined the issue thoroughly and found no wrongdoing, Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for the department, said in a statement to Upstream.

"Industry is back to work and complying with new and more rigorous safety practices," he said. "This investigation continues to spend taxpayer resources to re-litigate an issue that was resolved two years ago."

The drilling moratorium brought the Gulf of Mexico oil industry to a near-standstill, infuriating industry members and Gulf Coast workers, who also blamed the administration for glacial permitting paces for shallow-water projects and predicted catastrophic job losses.

An industry-backed study from Quest Resources estimated the region lost out on $18.3 billion of oil and gas capital spending in 2010 and 2011.

A later study from Louisiana-based GNO Inc showed less dire and more mixed impacts. The number of oil-and-gas jobs stayed essentially flat in the state, with many companies keeping their workers on throughout the moratorium, and some even picked up extra work from the spill clean-up or well-intervention efforts.

But industry still struggled with months of uncertainty about the future of their jobs and production in the Gulf, and many companies cut hours or pay for workers.

Many industry members and politicians also dished out scathing blame to the Obama administration over a slowdown in permits for shallow-water projects as well as his general energy policy, a tack that has lost no lustre in an election year that will leave the president facing a tough re-election fight in the fall.

Among the panel's harshest critics is Jeff Landry, a Republican of New Iberia, whose constituents were among those affected in the service sector.

“Once you flip the off switch – the dominoes of cooks, oil field service companies like work boats, drilling contractors, safety managers, divers, transporters, and many more pieces to this industry begin to fall,” Landry said, according to prepared remarks in Wednesday's proceeding.

“With all of the president’s rhetoric about moving our energy development forward in light of our high gas prices, I think he has a lot of explaining to do.”

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