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Drilling Oversight Agency Faces 'Troubling' Obstacles

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Drilling Oversight Agency Faces 'Troubling' Obstacles

Drilling Oversight Agency Faces 'Troubling' Obstacles

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The BP disaster one year ago in the Gulf of Mexico focused a spotlight on inadequate government oversight of offshore drilling, and so the Obama administration created a new agency. It was tasked with regulating offshore drilling.

One year after the disaster, NPR's Brian Naylor reports on a work in progress.

BRIAN NAYLOR: At the time the BP well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico last April, it was under the not so watchful eye of the Minerals Management Service, the MMS.

Investigations before and after the Gulf spill found the agency quite friendly with those it regulated. In Louisiana, oil companies offered football tickets and invitations to hunting trips to MMS inspectors.

Michael Bromwich has worked to end that culture of coziness.

Mr. MICHAEL BROMWICH (Director, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement): The fact that I was brought in to take over this job, I think, signaled to people in the agency that whatever was allowed before, not going to be allowed anymore.

NAYLOR: Bromwich is a former federal prosecutor brought in by President Obama to clean up the culture and direct the successor to the MMS. That's the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, known as BOEMRE.

His first step: putting in strict ethics guidelines for bureau employees to follow.

Mr. BROMWICH: That means that people cannot - our inspectors cannot go out on rigs where close friends of theirs or relatives of theirs work in significant positions. There had never been such a policy in the agency before.

NAYLOR: In some ways, changing the culture may have been the easiest part of Bromwich's job. Congressional Republicans and the oil industry complain that it's moving too slowly to allow new drilling, and environmental groups charge it's not doing enough to prevent another major spill.

Regan Nelson is with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ms. REGAN NELSON (Senior Oceans Advocate, Natural Resources Defense Council): The administration has the right intention in abolishing the Minerals Management Service and seeking to separate out the duties that led to the conflict of interest previously. Unfortunately, what we've seen is simply a rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

NAYLOR: The administration has issued 10 new permits for drilling in the Gulf after lifting a moratorium implemented after the Deepwater Horizon spill. In the meantime, lawmakers in Congress, hearing from their constituents about steadily rising gas prices, want the administration to open up new areas for drilling.

Washington state Republican Doc Hastings is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Representative DOC HASTINGS (Republican, Washington; Chairman, House Natural Resources Committee): In fact, if that is implemented, we estimate that we can cut our foreign imports down by one-third, which I think is pretty darn significant in this uncertain era that we're in right now. But yes, it does go after those areas that are currently off limits where we know there's potential resources.

NAYLOR: BOEMRE's biggest challenge is overseeing the drilling in areas now permitted with the amount of resources it has available.

William Reilly, a former EPA administrator and co-chairman of the presidential panel that investigated the Gulf spill, says Bromwich and his boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, have made all the right moves. But Reilly says a lack of resources is hampering their efforts.

Mr. WILLIAM REILLY (Co-Chairman, National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling): You don't reform an agency on a dime. You don't do it overnight, and you certainly don't do it without adequate resources.

NAYLOR: Bromwich agrees.

Mr. BROMWICH: We have barely 60 inspectors to cover 3,000-plus facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. If it weren't so troubling, it would be laughable.

NAYLOR: Congress did approve more money for the agency in the last budget but just about half of what the administration requested.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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