By Jennifer A. Dlouhy
Updated 06:57 a.m., Sunday, April 1, 2012
Michael Bromwich testifies in 2010 about overhauling the federal agencies that oversee offshore drilling. Now he urges more aggressive enforcement action. Photo: Jay Westcott / Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON – The former prosecutor who overhauled the federal agencies that oversee offshore drilling in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill wants to see regulators do more to publicly advance new safety rules and enforce the ones already on the books.
“There has been a decline in the amount of public activity,” said Michael Bromwich, who left his post as interim head of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement late last year. “I haven’t seen a lot of evidence of activity.”
As the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster approaches on April 20, a long-planned major drilling safety rule shows no signs of being proposed soon. There also haven’t been big public crackdowns on offshore drilling violations recently, following the safety bureau’s high-profile move last year to pursue penalties against BP and other companies associated with the Gulf spill.
In 2011, the federal government issued 2,690 “incidents of noncompliance” to companies that work offshore, the first step in penalizing the firms for violating rules governing the outer continental shelf. That included the high-profile notices issued for alleged violations tied to the Gulf spill to BP as well as Halliburton and Transocean – which was then an unprecedented move against offshore contractors.
So far this year, 390 have been issued, but none have drawn the public attention of last year’s BP spill infractions.
“If you’re going to be a credible regulator, you’ve got to be aggressive in your enforcement,” Bromwich said in an interview. “We all need to see evidence of aggressive enforcement.”
Bromwich’s comments come nearly four months after he stepped down as the safety bureau director and as he launches the Bromwich Group, a Washington-based consultancy aimed at advising companies on revamping their operations and combating systemic problems in law enforcement agencies.
Known as a “fix-it guy” with a history of cleaning up troubled organizations – including two years focused on the Houston Police Department crime lab amid allegations of bad management – Brom- wich also is looking to help oil and gas companies work with foreign regulators and help other countries set up programs to regulate offshore drilling.
Although Bromwich expects to focus on foreign oil and gas issues and has pledged not to actively lobby the federal bureaus that oversee offshore drilling, he said he will also work for energy companies looking for guidance on complying with new U.S. safety and environmental rules.
Rule change in works
At the Interior Department, Bromwich drew criticism for pushing major changes in offshore drilling rules too quickly for companies to keep up. One promised change – a broad new offshore drilling safety rule – has yet to materialize.
Regulators have spent more than a year working on that measure, which would set new standards for the design of subsea wells and blowout preventers used as emergency safeguards against unchecked oil and gas.
The safety bureau was close to proposing those mandates late last year. Bromwich said he hopes they materialize soon.
“It is important to make it clear that this is a continuing process and the rules have to reflect technological developments that are going on in the industry,” he said. “You can’t sit back and do nothing.”
“There has to be a continuous and very public involvement in pushing the regulatory frontier forward. Regulations have to change, they have to evolve and there has to be continuous improvement.”
Under Bromwich’s 14-month tenure at the Interior Department, regulators were planning to propose a single safety rule, with the contents guided by several technical reports on the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
“My notion all along was that you wanted to wrap as much as you could into the one proposal,” he said.
But his successor, retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, plans a different approach. The safety bureau is now preparing “a small number of focused rules that can more quickly address the most pressing safety issues,” said bureau spokesman Nicholas Pardi. The bureau “expects to be able to issue proposals this year for new rules to improve blowout preventer and production system safety, while we continue to fully evaluate the recommendations from the many Deepwater Horizon investigations and assess the need for additional rule-makings.”
One major change after the 2010 spill was a requirement that companies be able to contain and capture crude from damaged underwater wells. The Marine Well Containment Co. and Helix Well Containment Group are now providing that equipment in the Gulf.
But critics, including some environmental groups, say existing tests of the systems don’t guarantee they will work in an emergency. And they insist there is no assurance the offshore drilling industry is prepared for a wide variety of possible emergency scenarios that don’t look like what happened to BP’s Macondo well two years ago.
Industry readiness drills match Interior Department requirements, Helix spokesman Cameron Wallace stressed.
“As the scope of future drilling operations might evolve, the methods of testing response readiness to contain a potential spill will evolve with them,” Wallace said.
Industry leads the way?
Bromwich stressed the importance of testing emergency equipment in a range of realistic scenarios, but said the oil and gas industry might have to lead the way.
One candidate to do such emergency planning and testing could be the industry’s new Center for Offshore Safety, created by the American Petroleum Institute and headed by Shell Oil Co.’s former chief well engineering scientist, Charlie Williams.
The government doesn’t have sufficient resources to prepare for a full range of worst-case scenarios, Bromwich said. “Because the government is always going to be constrained Š inevitably it’s going to be industry that needs to carry a lot of the weight on that,” he added.
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Special thanks to Richard Charter