Rules Tighten for Oil Regulators to Avoid Favoritism to Drillers


WASHINGTON — Years after revelations of bribery, favoritism and a spinning door between the oil industry and its regulators, the federal agency charged with policing offshore oil drillers is moving to end some of its most egregious past practices.

Michael R. Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement — the successor to the discredited Minerals Management Service — issued guidelines this week to try to cool the cozy relationship between government and the oil companies.

The new policy is one of the government’s efforts to tighten regulation of drilling after the BP Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico in April.

Employees of the regulatory agency must now immediately report any attempt to coerce or cajole them into ignoring violations of laws and regulations for offshore operations. Audits and investigations have uncovered cases in which oil company executives used bribes, favors and threats to avoid citations for noncompliance, which can lead to heavy fines or other penalties.

Regulatory workers are not allowed to perform inspections or other regulatory actions against a former employer in the drilling or contracting business for at least two years after leaving that company.

Agency workers must now disclose any family or close personal relationships with employees of the drilling companies they regulate. Such relationships should generally lead to the government official’s recusal from any contact with the company involved, according to the new policy.

“A close personal relationship is defined as a relative who maintains a personal connection and regular social contact with the employee or a member of the employee’s household,” Mr. Bromwich’s memorandum states.

All Bureau of Ocean Energy Management employees involved in offshore regulation will have to fill out a two-page form disclosing all personal and business relationships with companies supervised by the agency.

In a note to all bureau employees, Mr. Bromwich said the new policy “is an important reform that underscores the importance of independence, objectivity and the absence of real or apparent bias.”

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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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