By ANGELA CANTERBURY
The BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf left little doubt about the costs of allowing the Interior Department to regulate offshore drilling safety without adequate independent oversight. Inspector General (IG) reports exposed numerous corrupt relationships between the Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) and the offshore oil industry it was supposed to oversee to the point that last year, President Obama formally abolished the MMS and announced a new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in its place and a formal federal prosecutor, Michael Bromwich, as its new director.
This morning, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is poised to approve legislation (S. 917) offered by its chair, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), which would codify the reorganization and many of the important reforms initiated at Interior since the oil disaster. However, a surprising and little-noticed provision of the bill would put the Interior Department squarely in charge of conducting “independent” investigations of future offshore accidents—even though the adequacy of Interior Department regulations and programs would be a prime focus of any thorough, independent investigation.
Departing from the well-established model where independent, presidentially appointed safety boards like the Chemical Safety Board or the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) initiate and conduct accident investigations on their own statutory authority, the Bingaman bill would allow the Interior Department itself to request and structure future investigations of major accidents—including the choice of the investigator. The bill would nominally authorize the NTSB to investigate offshore accidents (a role the NTSB has never publicly sought) at the request of the Interior Secretary.
Absent from the bill and seemingly left on the cutting room floor is the federal Chemical Safety Board or CSB, the agency which last year launched a far-reaching and tenaciously independent investigation of the Gulf disaster, requested and supported by bipartisan leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The CSB, a relatively recent creation from 1998, had built its reputation in large part by a painstakingly thorough study of another BP disaster, the Texas City refinery explosion of 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured 180 others at a sprawling plant south of Houston. The CSB eventually traced that disaster back to decisions made years earlier by BP’s corporate board in London and its dazzling chief executive Lord John Browne.
When it came to Deepwater Horizon, the CSB discovered that Interior officials had permitted Transocean, the owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon rig, to play a hands-on role in post-accident testing of a key component of the rig—the blowout preventer—whose spectacular televised failure led to months of oil gushing into the Gulf. This past winter, CSB investigators revealed that the Interior Department had allowed Transocean personnel—including a supervisor from Deepwater Horizon itself—to manipulate the blowout preventer during forensic testing at a Louisiana NASA facility, while Interior officials stood by idly and CSB investigators were kept at arm’s length. The correspondence, made public in December by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), paints a stark picture of official mishandling of the Deepwater Horizon investigation by BOEMRE.
Eventually, BOEMRE’s director, Michael Bromwich, agreed to reform the testing procedures and bar further hands-on activities by Transocean.
Perhaps the CSB’s investigation has left a bad taste with some, as the new-look “independent investigations” under S. 917 would ice out the CSB, which is statutorily required to defer on transportation investigations to the NTSB—or perhaps it is simply an unintended consequence. But either way it would be a shame if this watchdog with specialized scientific expertise was blocked from bringing more oversight and accountability to oil and gas regulation by Interior.
POGO has urged the Senate Energy Committee to remove or modify this provision in S. 917 to allow truly independent investigations by CSB and others to continue—not just investigations by investigators selected by Interior. We hope that’s what they’ll do in this morning’s markup.
Angela Canterbury is POGO's Director of Public Policy.