Pressure On For Swift Makeover Of Drilling Regulator

Michael Bromwich, the new director of what is now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, testifies before a Senate panel as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar listens on June 23.
Michael Bromwich, the new director of what is now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, testifies before a Senate panel as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar listens on June 23. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

The federal agency charged with overseeing offshore oil drilling has been given a new name and a new director. But Michael Bromwich, who has taken over the former Minerals Management Service, faces intense political pressure to quickly turn around a troubled agency that is now widely reviled.

The federal agency charged with overseeing offshore oil drilling has been given a new name and has a new director. But critics say the changes have to go far beyond the surface at an agency derided for its too-cozy relationship with the industry it's charged with regulating.

First, the name: What was the Minerals Management Service, or the MMS, is now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

"Which can only be pronounced 'bummer,'" says Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. His group has helped publicize the plight of scientists at the former MMS who say their concerns about the environmental impact of offshore drilling were often ignored by higher-ups in the agency.

Ruch says that conflict still exists at the new bureau.

"In this new agency, they still have environmental scientists who are reviewing offshore drilling plans answering to nonscientist managers whose job it is to move the lease packages along," he says.

Ethics Lapses

The ethical culture at the former MMS has also come under scrutiny. Agency employees have a long-documented record of improper behavior, including drug use and sexual relationships in the Denver office and acceptance of gifts and meals from industry officials at the Lake Charles, La., office.

Michael Bromwich, the former Justice Department inspector general now heading the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, says setting up an investigative unit was among his first actions.

"This new unit, the IRU, will be staffed with experienced prosecutors, investigators, scientists and other personnel that will allow us to undertake prompt and aggressive enforcement action," he says, "both with respect to allegations of misconduct against people in my agency, but also with respect to companies and other participants in the industry that we regulate."

Investigator Shortage

While questionable ethical behavior is one of Bromwich's targets, another is the shortage of qualified inspectors at the agency. There are some 4,000 oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, overseen by a total of 62 inspectors.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a congressional hearing that he would like to quadruple that number, but his budget request asks for just six additional inspectors.

And training and paying those inspectors is another issue, says Marilyn Heiman, a former Clinton administration Interior Department official who now directs the Pew Environment Group's Offshore Energy Reform Project.

"I don't think that they have kept pace with what the industry has in place," she says. "This is a very complicated industry with very complex technology, and you need to have regulators who understand that. And that means paying them enough so that they don't go work for the industry as soon as they know the trade."

That revolving door has led to two former MMS directors leaving the agency for industry trade groups and at least one inspector negotiating with an oil company for a job while inspecting its Gulf rig.

'A Great Deal Of Oversight'

President Obama has said Bromwich's job is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry's watchdog, not its partner.

Heiman says that's going go take some shaking up: "The laws need to change, the standards need to change, and there needs to be a great deal of oversight by both Congress and the administration."

Congress, which was not involved in the original formation of the MMS, now seems anxious to weigh in on drilling oversight. And as he starts his third week on the job, Bromwich faces intense political pressure to quickly turn around a troubled agency that was once little-known and is now widely reviled. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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