WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans continued Thursday to grill Interior Department employees over GOP allegations that a report was doctored to help justify the six-month drilling moratorium issued after the 2010 BP oil leak.
Federal officials and an internal investigation have concluded a drafting error made it appear to some that a panel of experts had supported the moratorium, when in fact they had only been asked about safety issues not related to the moratorium.
But the two Interior employees who testified Thursday before the House Natural Resources Committee — Special Assistant Neal Kemkar and Deputy Chief of Staff Mary Katherine Ishee — also said they were told by the department’s legal counsel not to hand over all the documents and emails subpoenaed by the GOP-led committee because the records were deemed confidential agency records.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., threatened to hold the two employees in “contempt of Congress.”
But he did not make such a formal motion. He told them it is “very, very serious” that they “refuse a lawful congressional subpoena.”
The moratorium was recommended in the wake of the BP tragedy that killed 11 men and resulted in a three-month discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil into Gulf waters and along Louisiana’s coast.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., continued to complain that Republicans are only trying to make President Barack Obama look bad in an election year with the committee hearings and that they should be focused on passing laws to improve offshore oil-and-gas-drilling safety.
“Unfortunately, this Republican Congress has acted like the BP spill never happened,” Markey said. “They have put oil above all, even above the safety of the American people.”
The facts are, Markey said, that domestic oil drilling is up under Obama and foreign oil dependence is down.
Last month, the same House committee questioned acting for the Interior Department Inspector General Mary Kendall for nearly three hours on her character concerning suggestions that she was biased when she ruled there was no evidence to suggest the report’s error was anything but inadvertent.
Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., also is seeking to question former White House staffer Joe Aldy, who served as special assistant to the president for energy and environment and was involved in communications about the report. Aldy is teaching at Harvard University.
“This committee is committed to getting answers and will continue to pursue every avenue necessary,” Hastings said. “That includes additional questioning of department officials and seeking answers from within the White House itself.”
Kemkar, Ishee and committee Democrats all contended that the peer review experts supported technical safety recommendations in the report and that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the separate moratorium recommendation on his own.
But the executive summary of a draft of the report included a mention of the moratorium right before it stated, “The recommendations of this report were peer reviewed by seven experts …”
Kemkar said the editing mistake made it look to some like the peer reviewers supported the moratorium even though the draft report never explicitly stated that.
Regardless, the issue was quickly corrected and the Interior Department apologized to the experts.
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., also pointed out that the original moratorium announcement made no mention of any peer reviewers. The announcement clearly stated Salazar made the recommendation to the president, Tonko said.
“The (Obama) administration did not seek, nor did it need political cover for the moratorium,” Tonko said. “Eleven men were dead and oil was gushing out …”
But Republicans were not buying the idea that the mistake in the draft report was inadvertent.
Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, said it was too convenient that the draft report was edited at the last minute to mention the moratorium and peer reviewers in back-to-back sentences. The resulting moratorium cost Louisiana thousands of jobs, he said.
“That is obvious what’s going on here,” Fleming said. “That was intended.”
Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, told Kemkar and Ishee that their superiors are “throwing you completely under the bus.”
Landry questioned the intentions of the administration and said the moratorium never should have occurred because other corporations in the Gulf were running completely different drilling operations than BP. Citing an example made by a colleague, Landry said all auto manufacturers do not suspend operations just because Toyota or someone else has a recall.
“There are some jobs that are inherently dangerous in this country,” Landry said, despite the government’s efforts to “mother hen” them. “We understand that in Louisiana and in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Even families of the deceased victims opposed the moratorium, he said.