Republican unveils offshore drilling oversight plan

A leading House Republican today unveiled his plans for reorganizing the federal agencies that oversee offshore energy operations and beefing up the credentials of the government inspectors that police them.

The proposal, by Rep. Doc Hastings, the head of the House Natural Resources Committee, dovetails with changes the Obama administration launched in the wake of last year’s Gulf oil spill.

Hastings said the spill made clear “that changes need to be made to the organization and structure of the federal government’s offshore energy agencies.”

“Reforms must increase accountability, improve efficiency, promote safety and ensure the highest ethical standards of employees,” said Hastings, R-Wash.

Many of the changes that Hastings proposes are happening already, according to an administration official. And the core of Hastings’ plan mirrors the overhaul the Obama administration is set to complete on Oct. 1, by dividing the former Minerals Management Service into three separate agencies.

For instance, the administration already removed the revenue-management and royalty-collection functions of the former MMS and put them in a new Office of Natural Resources Revenue housed in the Interior Department. Hastings’ bill would formally create that new ONRR in statute and task it with collecting all offshore energy revenue.

On Oct. 1, the government is on track to divide the MMS once more, separating it into a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management responsible for environmental analysis of offshore projects and vetting exploration plans and a Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement that would be tasked with reviewing applications for permits to drill.

Aside from a couple name changes, Hastings’ plan is quite similar — with the same division of labor. Hastings’ bill would create a Bureau of Ocean Energy responsible for planning, leasing and environmental work associated with offshore energy production, and a separate Ocean Energy Safety Service tasked with permitting, safety and inspections.

Administration officials have asked Congress to pass legislation that would write the still-ongoing overhaul into federal law. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee debated legislation last week that would formalize the now-administrative organizational changes.

Hastings said it is important for Congress to put its stamp on the overhaul.

“The Department of the Interior has already taken steps to restructure its organization overseeing offshore energy,” Hastings acknowledged. “While the department has made progress, I believe Congress should pass legislation building on their reforms and write into law the structure of these agencies.”

Hastings’ proposal also would:

  • create a new “National Offshore Energy Health and Safety Academy” to train offshore inspectors. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement announced its plans for a first-ever broad inspector training program earlier this year.
  • formally establish an Outer Continental Shelf Energy Safety Advisory Board, already created administratively by the interior secretary. The panel made up of petroleum engineers, scientists and safety experts, has been charged with giving the government advice on how to boost the safety of offshore drilling.
  • require that any government employees conducting offshore safety inspections have at least three years experience in the oil and natural gas field. Hastings’ bill specifies that the employees must have “an appropriate field of engineering from an accredited institution of higher learning” but does not specify exactly what might qualify.
  • establish a new position — an assistant secretary for ocean energy and safety — who would oversee both the proposed ocean energy bureau and separate safety service.
  • authorize a random drug testing program for all Interior Department employees, including inspectors and others working at the offshore energy bureaus.

Hastings’ Proposed Offshore Structure