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Splitting ocean agency will help with health and safety, says BSEE head

October 24, 2011
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fireThe recent reorganization of ocean-related U.S. agencies should help eliminate one of the problems that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to the head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). 

Addressing a group of global offshore regulators at an international safety summit in Norway, BSEE Director Michael R. Bromwich called the Deepwater accident "a watershed" for oil and gas drilling regulation. "The blowout and its aftermath highlighted the inadequacy of existing regulations and the fact that the offshore regulator was charged with multiple important and conflicting missions – and historically suffered from an enormous shortage of resources."

Bromwich said that reform efforts undertaken in the wake of the event included implementing tough new regulations and replacing the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement into two new agencies: his and the Burean of Ocean Energy Management. The move is part of a larger reorganization of the former Minerals Management Service (MMS).

"One of the fundamental weaknesses highlighted by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy was the fact that the agency charged with enforcing federal regulations had three competing missions – revenue generation, responsible energy development, and safety and environmental enforcement," he said.

With BOEM and BSEE, offshore resource management is separated from safety, environmental oversight, and enforcement. "This allows our permitting engineers and inspectors, who are central to overseeing safe offshore operations, greater independence and clearer focus," said Bromwich. "Our goal has been to create an aggressive but fair regulator that can effectively keep pace with the risks of offshore drilling and will work to promote the development of safety cultures in offshore operations."

Other changes included establishing a strict recusal policy and internal investigation unit that would address potential conflicts of interest, strengthening ethics training and providing clarification on gift acceptance policies.

"We also addressed the lack of resources that had plagued the agency for decades," said Bromwich. He noted that a substantial supplemental budget request by President Obama was partially funded, which allowed for the hiring of additional staff.

"We launched an aggressive nationwide recruitment campaign, and I personally visited college campuses across the country to talk about the rewarding and challenging careers awaiting engineers and scientists in BOEMRE. We have since hired 122 new employees across various disciplines and specialties, but we need many more."

Bromwich said the regulatory agencies were committed to making resource development decisions based on "thorough, credible and unfiltered scientific data."

Although the US has long maintained a robust scientific studies program, there was little effort in the past to disseminate the information t hat was being developed. "We are refocusing our efforts to showcase the world-class research being conducted and directed by our scientists, and we are taking institutional steps to ensure that their research is given appropriate weight in the decision-making process."

BSEE, he said, was based on the best practices of domestic and international regulators and is intended to create strong enforcement mechanisms through an Environmental Enforcement Division which will focus on operators compliance with environmental regulations, and with making sure that operators keep the promises they have made at the time they obtain their leases, submit their plans, and apply for their permits. Although not regulated in the past, contractors will now be subject to the agency's regulatory reach.

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