One more reason that offshore drilling remains such a threat


Will America ever get a hands around the problems with offshore oil drilling? There was a brief moment after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010 when the scenes of devastation — oiled birds, massive slicks invading the precious marshlands of the Gulf and its sandy white beaches — made you think that the government would finally make drilling safety a significant priority.

Of course, just the opposite happened. On the supply side, the halt of new offshore drilling leases after the BP oil spill was remarkably brief; the only thing that has slowed the opening up of new deepwater tracts in the Gulf to Big Oil’s drilling rigs has been the recent sharp drop in the price of crude. Not only that, but the Obama administration recently green-lighted Shell’s foolhardy drilling project in the dangerous waters of the Arctic Ocean, while pushing also its plan that would allow oil platforms to invade the Atlantic waters off the Southern states for the very first time. It’s said to be part of President Obama’s so-called “all of the above” energy policy — which maybe should be called his “anything goes” agenda because no source of fossil fuels appears to be off-limits, regardless of the risk.

Then there’s the regulatory side. The president’s commission that investigated the 2010 spill called for a number of safety improvements in offshore drilling practices, but many of these recommendations have not been carried out while others are advancing in a glacial fashion. As I wrote earlier this week, the Republicans in Congress are fighting one of the few common-sense ideas that has advanced — safety improvements to the device called the blowout preventer that failed on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Then there’s the federal regulatory agency seeking to replace the former discredited U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS), which was widely seen as too cozy with industry and failing to detect the looming problems at the BP rig.  The Interior Department’s new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has attempted to replace the MMS, but so far it seems like little improvement. Last year, a local New Orleans TV station, WWL, reported that the federal regulators had scuttled a planned new training center for the regulators in New Orleans.

Now, WWL’s David Hammer is back with an explosive new report that the Interior Department bureau has squandered an opportunity to spend millions of available dollars to hire the new regulators to make sure there is not another Deepwater Horizon-sized disaster in the Gulf:

NEW ORLEANS — The federal agency that regulates offshore oil and gas drilling and production has used budget increases since the BP disaster to hire dozens of engineers and geologists, but has all but ignored an environmental enforcement division beset by understaffing and massive work backlogs.

Michael Bromwich, who created the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to separate regulators from the influence of the oil and gas industry, set up an environmental enforcement division to make sure companies operate without damaging marine life and habitat.

Bromwich secured funding from Congress for 22 full-time positions in the division, went on a nationwide recruiting tour and hired 12 environmental regulators in the agency’s first year and a half.

But in the three budget years since Bromwich left, government records show only two of 10 funded vacancies have been filled. Meanwhile, the agency’s budget has increased by hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s hired 77 new employees since a hiring freeze was lifted last November, building staff in almost every section of the agency — other than the one responsible for protecting the environment.

Simply put, this agency that is supposed to be a valuable watchdog instead continues to be a tool of industry, just like it was back in 2010 before the trouble broke out. Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, told WWL: “[W]hat we’ve seen with older, established agencies is that when reforms are brought in, the long-term agency staff simply have the attitude that, if we wait, it will revert back to the way it was.”

The saddest part of the story is this: WWL’s revelations of waste and mismanagement probably won’t even get that much attention elsewhere in the mainstream media. Until there’s another massive oil spill. And then it will be too late.

Check out WWL’s new bombshell report about the mismanagement of federal offshore drilling regulators:

Learn more about our efforts to expose the truth of the BP oil spill in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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