Offshore drilling chief takes aim at industry critics

The nation’s top offshore energy regulator today hit back against oil and gas industry critics who say the government has been moving too slowly in permitting new coastal drilling projects.

In a speech before the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Bromwich said the critics are making “politically motivated” charges that are “simply not true.”

Bromwich told CSIS:

“Not everyone . . . is willing to see the facts as they are, nor to appreciate the level of effort of our personnel, nor to recognize that additional requirements designed to enhance the safety of offshore operations and protection of offshore operations mean that plan and permit approvals do not proceed at the same pace as they did in the past.”

In a letter last week organized by the Gulf Economic Survival Team, 20 industry and Gulf Coast representatives insisted that the government was slow-walking drilling permits that, if approved, could create jobs “all across the United States.”

Without naming names, Bromwich also flagged a recent comment in a news release by the American Petroleum Institute that said “the industry has met every requirement for resuming operations in the Gulf,” but “permits and leases have been issued too slowly, which is costing jobs, hurting the Gulf Coast, the national economy and reducing energy security.”

“These groups continue to distort the facts, and, in some cases, use undisclosed or incomprehensible methodologies to suggest that the slower pace of plan and permit approval is part of a strategy to slow down offshore energy instead of the predictable product of more searching and rigorous reviews and analyses conducted by a small staff,” Bromwich said.

The federal government has issued 74 permits for new shallow-water wells since imposing new safety environmental standards in June 2010. BOEMRE has approved 129 permits for 40 unique wells that must comply with a new requirement for containing runaway subsea wells since the industry rolled out equipment to satisfy the mandate in February.

Bromwich said that instead of commissioning more studies about the state of the oil industry, trade groups and companies that work offshore would be better off “improving the quality of their applications.” He added:

“The fact is that flawed and incomplete applications are a significant source of delays in the process. Operators need to stop turning in applications with missing or incomplete information, or that completely lack information about subsea containment. We are still receiving applications that use cookie-cutter templates.”

The mistakes are not “simple typographical errors,” he insisted. “We are talking about applications with completely incorrect data or that are missing key data or that contain completely inconsistent data.”

Bromwich added:

“We see this day in and day out — and then we face criticism for the high rate of drilling applications that are returned to operators.”

Separately, Bromwich also:

  • stressed that the government soon will launch a lengthy rulemaking process designed to strengthen standards governing the design of offshore wells and the emergency equipment that guards them. The measure will propose “additional (initiatives) that will further enhance drilling safety and environmental protection,” Bromwich said. That proposal has been discussed for about a year and is likely to be advanced after the conclusion of a Coast Guard and BOEMRE investigation into the Deepwater Horizon disaster. “We have waited this long because we thought it was important to wait until we were in a position to benefit from the insights and lessons learned from the joint investigation.”
  • shed a little more light on the forthcoming Deepwater Horizon investigation report, which he described as “imminent.” Bromwich said that he did not believe there was harm in deliberately and carefully rolling out proposed new drilling safety standards after the report, but “if the …report has conclusions that suggest their is an immediate need to do something — say with respect to blowout preventers — then obviously we would proceed on that basis.” He added: “Based on what I know right now, I don’t think there is going to be that kind or that set of recommendations.”
  • said he hoped companies would voluntarily implement new drilling safety standards based on what is in the report and what the government proposes, even if it isn’t yet mandatory. “what we hope is that in reading the (Deepwater Horizon investigation) report and reading the final report of the National Academy of Engineering that is going to come out later this fall, that companies on their own will say, ‘that makes sense and because we’re interested in enhancing safety, we’re not going to wait for the government to mandate it; we’re going to do it ourselves.'”
  • said he doesn’t expect the division of BOEMRE into two separate agencies on Oct. 1 to disrupt the government’s work vetting offshore drilling plans or inspecting coastal operations. As the reorganization has been under way, “we have continued to move forward with the full range of our important day-to-day activities,” Bromwich said. “This has taken dedication and commitment and our personnel have shown this to a truly impressive degree.”
  • refused to say what his plans are after the Oct. 1 breakup of the agencythat  he now heads. A former federal prosecutor, Bromwich is known as a “fixer” and tough investigator who is skilled at identifying problems and cleaning house. Bromwich stressed that while he has achieved many of his goals in the past 15 months, “our work will never be done.” “The work will never be done, and obviously, I will not be around forever,” Bromwich said. But, the BOEMRE director added that he is optimistic that the work “will continue” regardless. Bromwich said he doesn’t know what’s next and has “not had a whole lot of time to think about…what I am going to be doing long-term.” However, Bromwich added that an announcement soon — possibly about the heads of the two new offshore drilling agencies — will shed more light on his future.