We’re not all bad! Federal drilling chief defends offshore inspectors

As the public face of the federal bureau that oversees offshore drilling, Michael Bromwich has spent a lot of time defending the honor of inspectors, after a series of government reports and the Deepwater Horizon disaster revealed some ethical and regulatory lapses at the agency.

But now he is defending the inspection process at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement from criticism that rig inspectors don’t know enough about key well drilling and sealing techniques.

In a post just added to the White House blog, Bromwich takes aim at what he calls unfair criticism of the bureau and its workforce.

“The federal employees responsible for conducting inspections on offshore rigs, platforms and other facilities associated with offshore drilling have been subjected to waves of criticism over the past several months,” Bromwich acknowledged. “Some of that criticism has been fair — as when it focused on the selfish and corrupt acts of a few inspectors — but much of it has been misguided.”

A Times Picayune story last month quoted one of the leaders of a national commission investigating the oil spill who said he was surprised that in internal Interior Department surveys, many rig inspectors confessed they lacked expertise in key processes in the drilling process. The gap in knowledge, according to commission co-chairman William Reilly, included ignorance of aspects of the cementing process, which may have been one of the failures at BP’s Macondo well.

But according to Bromwich, while a cadre of bureau workers review drilling proposals, it is the engineers — not the rig inspectors — who take the lead role in scrutinizing companies’ plans for drilling, cementing and sealing wells. Bromwich adds:

“This review first takes place when an operator applies for a permit to drill.  As work begins, drilling engineers monitor weekly reports submitted by the operators to verify compliance. Drilling engineers provide direction to inspectors on what to look for during physical rig inspections. The combined reviews of inspectors and drilling engineers address issues relating to well design — and compliance with that design and with federal regulations.”

Bromwich has been considering a plan that would step up the federal government’s monitoring of offshore drilling projects from afar, with bureau engineers monitoring streaming real-time data about well pressures, fluid levels and other parameters.

The bureau is also on a recruiting push, with leaders hoping to add as many as 200 more inspectors and engineers to its workforce. During a recruitment tour in October, bureau officials visited five colleges in Louisiana and Texas with the goal of hiring about 60 full-time employees, as well as more than a dozen interns.