By Mandy Smithberger
Institutional conflicts of interest, a lack of conflict of interest or recusal policies for offshore inspectors, and a strong orientation towards production and revenue were all real obstacles to meeting safety goals at the now-defunct Minerals Management Service (MMS), said Michael Bromwich, Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE), at an event held by Public Citizen yesterday.
The royalty and revenue collections function has been successfully separated from the other BOEMRE missions, he said, but fixing other institutional conflicts of interest between resource development and regulation hasn't been an easy task. Untangling the functions means untangling a joint computer system, and making what some may perceive to be arbitrary decisions about duties like planning reviews (which BOEMRE gave to the development side) and permitting (a job for the regulators).
But in addition to organizational changes, Bromwich said BOEMRE is exploring whether it can be more proactive in its oversight of rig contractors like Transocean and Halliburton. Last week, a joint Coast Guard-Interior Department panel found that SAFEty award winning Transocean's poor maintenance doomed the Deepwater Horizon. Bromwich said MMS was reluctant to regulate these contractors because regulators thought it was simpler and more efficient not to do so. But as the disaster in the gulf shows, avoiding dealing with these contractors out of convenience meant that they didn't face regulatory pressure to improve their standards.
The Interior Department's ability to more effectively regulate rig contractors may be hampered, however, by BOEMRE's resistance to cooperating with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board's (CSB) root cause analysis. The CSB analysis is the only independent analysis that does a deep dive into the root cause of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and would likely provide key insights into how to formulate future regulations and systems to prevent future disasters. But as CSB Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso raised in a letter last December, Bromwich has protested that "organizations have the capacity to investigate themselves," and granted contractors Cameron and Transocean privileges to Blowout Preventer (BOP) testing that they denied to CSB. Legislation introduced by Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA), George Miller (D-CA), and their colleagues would expand CSB's powers to ensure taxpayers could benefit from this independent review.
At yesterday's talk, Bromwich admitted that the numerous investigations into the spill have been the "bane" of his existence as head of BOEMRE, but that the investigations are revealing that many changes were necessary. In response, Interior has created a dozen implementation teams to respond to the recommendations of the numerous investigations, he said.
POGO hopes there will be more questions about why an agency with a history of conflict of interest problems wouldn't welcome an independent analysis into the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. Some additional concerns we would've raised, given the opportunity:
- Inspectors in the Gulf told POGO that coziness problems occurred in managers offices just as much, or more, than on the rigs. Have conflict of interest and recusal policies gone far enough to include not just inspectors but their managers and their bosses in DC?
- Even though royalty and revenue has been separated out of BOEMRE, was BOEMRE able to respond to all of the needs of that mission during the disaster? To what degree did royalty audits get halted or stopped, and who's making sure that the audit shop is healthy now?
- What firewalls are in place to ensure that whistleblowers who raise concerns to BOEMRE's investigations team do not get retaliated against? How has the culture changed to make sure that bad news makes it up to management?
MMS was rechristened as BOEMRE in June 2010.
Mandy Smithberger is a POGO Investigator.
Image: Public Citizen