Republican wants answers about feds’ offshore drilling strike team

A top congressional Republican wants to know more about a new Interior Department strike team dedicated to rooting out wrongdoing by companies drilling offshore and the government officials who police them.

The man behind the push, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., heads the House Natural Resources Committee and is a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s management of offshore drilling.

His target is the Investigations and Review Unit, established by former Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Michael Bromwich in the wake of the 2010 Gulf oil spill, as part of a broader reorganization of the government agencies that oversee offshore drilling. At the time, Bromwich said he envisioned the unit  would be “an internal compliance and investigations team that can act quickly and report directly to me.”

Three years later, Hastings said, it’s still unclear exactly how the team works and what its powers are.

“Questions remain about whether the IRU has been allowed to operate as a law enforcement program, reporting only to the (bureau) director and without sufficient public scrutiny and oversight from the (Interior) Department and Congress,” Hastings said in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “None of the internal department policies and orders related to the establishment of the IRU shed light on whether these employees are serving in a law enforcement capacity, how they are to interact with witnesses or collect evidence, and what technical expertise they possess.”

It also is unclear how many people work for the investigative unit,  their backgrounds and  expertise, and whether their  work duplicates that of other Interior Department programs and workers, Hastings said.

For instance, since the Investigations and Review Unit has been deployed to help with investigations of offshore facilities and at least one accident in the Gulf of Mexico, the team’s work could overlap with the mission of other bureau inspectors.

Hastings’ move follows speculation by some in the offshore drilling industry that if unchecked, the unit could hamper coastal energy development. In an opinion piece last November, Hercules Offshore vice president Jim Noe urged “careful thought” on how the new investigative team would be deployed “to ensure that safe and responsible offshore production can continue its course.”

Although created as part of the former Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the investigation unit now resides under the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Bromwich left the agency more than a year ago, and the safety bureau is now headed by retired Coast Guard Adm. James Watson.

The Obama administration last year sought $5.8 million to pay for 20 new employees in the investigative team, above and beyond the spending already dedicated to the offshore inspections at the safety bureau.

In describing the program, Bromwich had said it would be staffed with prosecutors, investigators and scientists who would investigate allegations of misconduct and conflicts of interest against internal bureau employees as well as industry officials. And a 2012 job description said the special investigator positions require a Top Secret clearance, as well as experience conducting on-site inquiries and collecting evidence. A bureau website describes the group as a “team of professionals with law enforcement backgrounds or technical expertise.”

Hastings asked Salazar to describe the Interior Department’s management of the investigations and review unit, including the training and the credentialing of its members. Under existing Interior Department policies, any law enforcement officers must undergo background checks and undergo specialized training.

Hastings also asked the interior secretary whether he has authorized any investigative team members — along with other employees — to carry firearms, any handgun training they have received and the rationale for those decisions.

Earlier this year, Hastings emphasized his plans to step up congressional oversight of the Obama administration’s management of energy development on federal lands and waters.

Tough scrutiny “is more important than ever,” Hastings said, in anticipation of what he predicted would be “a more aggressive Obama administration in the second term.” Hastings said the Natural Resource Committee’s role would be to keep pace and ensure any new “regulations and actions are thoroughly scrutinized and challenged if necessary.”

Hastings letter to DOI on IRU