Misbehaving drillers may undergo new scrutiny

WASHINGTON — The nation’s top offshore drilling regulator said Wednesday he is examining whether the government can do more to keep oil and gas companies with checkered histories from exploring offshore.

Michael Bromwich, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said he is studying how to treat “operators who may have behaved badly in the past and whether they should be allowed to continue operating in the future.”

The government already can bar offshore oil and gas operators in some cases, and the government can suspend operations or impose civil penalties in response to some violations. But historically, it has not wielded the authority aggressively, raising questions about whether it does enough to keep some of the worst performing companies away from the outer continental shelf.

Other countries, including the United Kingdom, take a hard-line approach that may be a model for the U.S., Bromwich told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.

“They have a much tougher re-qualification system than we do,” Bromwich said. “Part of what I have been trying to do recently is gather additional knowledge about what other countries who deal with similar kinds of issues have done in similar circumstances.”

Some in Congress have pitched such proposals, including measures aimed to block BP from offshore drilling because of last year’s deadly blowout at its Macondo well.

Bromwich said he is conducting a broad review of agency policies as part of a reorganization of the former Minerals Management Service that is on track to meet an Oct. 1 deadline.

The ocean energy bureau is also readying two new rules that aim to boost the safety of offshore drilling, including a measure that would set new mandates for the blowout preventers used as a last line of defense against unexpected surges of oil and gas at wells.

Designs, safety

The agency will kick off a long process of creating the new regulations by publishing an advanced notice of proposed rule-making that sets a slower timetable for completing the mandates. Bromwich said the lengthier review will allow more people to weigh in on the measure’s content.

It could include mandates governing the design of offshore wells and new standards for cement barriers. The rule also is likely to continue making adjustments to a drilling safety rule that was imposed last October. Companies have complained that it sets confusing and conflicting standards.

“It may well be that there are specific items that we’ve already issued rules on that we may want to change, modify, enlarge,” Bromwich said.

He said that while the process will focus on drilling safety, nothing prohibits the agency from looking into other safety issues.

Bromwich said the agency will be closely looking at the recommendations of a new 15-member Offshore Drilling Advisory Committee, which was meeting in New Orleans on Wednesday.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar tasked that panel with developing recommendations for bolstering safety rules and drilling standards to better prevent spills and contain them when they happen.

The group also is studying how to improve the broad safety and management systems oil and gas companies use to identify and respond to risks.

‘Very broad view’

Tom Hunter, the former director of Sandia National Laboratories who is heading the advisory group, said it is examining a range of subsea equipment and how workers interface with it, including instrumentation, fluid injection systems and well control equipment.

“We are going to take a very broad view and see if we can ferret out some very clear recommendations,” Hunter said.

jennifer.dlouhy@chron.com