Former offshore drilling regulator warns of complacency

A former federal regulator warned today that growing “complacency” since the 2010 Gulf oil spill threatened to undermine changes that have boosted safety and government oversight of offshore drilling.

Michael Bromwich, who headed the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in the wake of the spill, said he was “surprised and troubled” by how quickly memories of the Deepwater Horizon disaster have faded.

“All of the discussions I hear on Capitol Hill . . . are all about the pace of deep-water drilling and speeding up the application approval process,” Bromwich said, adding that, at the same time, there is “very little discussion about safety.”

At a National Press Club panel event on offshore drilling, Bromwich also took aim at a House committee’s ongoing probe of how the Obama administration assembled and edited a May 27, 2010 report that laid the foundation for a deep-water drilling moratorium in the wake of the spill.

Eight of 15 drilling engineers and experts who reviewed the report for the government said they signed off on an initial draft that called for a “pause” of offshore drilling. But the final edition of the report — which still had the experts’ names attached — included an executive summary that specifically recommended a six-month moratorium on most deep-water drilling, including halting exploration that was already underway.

The House Natural Resources Committee voted along party lines on Wednesday to authorize subpoenas for five Interior Department officials who may have been involved in editing or handling the report. And on Thursday, panel Republicans grilled the Interior Department’s top internal investigator and suggested her involvement in a government offshore safety panel undermined her independence.

Bromwich stressed that the document did not affect the decision to suspend drilling operations while oil was still flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. He suggested a moratorium would have been ordered even without the report and noted that after a court ruled against the initial deep-water drilling ban, Interior Department officials decided to craft a new one.

“There is a substantial unfinished safety agenda, in terms of responding to the oil spill,” Bromwich said. “It’s a shame that they are focusing on things like the two-year-old drilling moratorium and the editing of a document that in fact had no impact on the decisions that were made.”