Bromwich: Achieving a Safe Future

May 2, 2012

By Michael Bromwich
Appeared on

Last month, we recognized the two-year anniversary of Deepwater Horizon. Anniversaries are generally happy events; this was the opposite. It was a somber time to reflect on the tragic deaths of the 11 crew members, and the increasingly well-documented environmental damage caused by the spill. In the run-up to the anniversary, we witnessed a wide range of retrospectives, from the generally balanced report card issued by the President’s Commission to the far more negative evaluations of government and industry issued by certain environmental groups. There is a broad spectrum of views on the extent of the progress that has been made to date, but everyone agrees that much remains to be done to reduce the risks of offshore drilling.

Accomplishing that goal requires that we identify the key U.S. participants in the process and appropriately define their roles:

  • The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE);
  • the Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee (OESAC);
  • the Center for Offshore Safety (COS); and
  • the individual companies that operate offshore.

As the principal federal offshore regulator, BSEE has the responsibility to develop safety rules and to try to ensure that regulatory requirements keep pace with technological advances in offshore drilling. This is done in concert with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which sets the tough environmental standards that BSEE regulates. As its next step, BSEE has announced its intention to develop, in the near future, blowout preventer design, performance and maintenance standards.

The OESAC was established in early 2011 to advise BSEE and the Secretary of the Interior on ways to improve offshore drilling safety. It was designed to bring together, under the leadership of Dr. Tom Hunter, the best minds in industry, academia, government and the non-profit sector to focus on the most significant safety issues and make recommendations on how to enhance safety. The OESAC’s interim recommendations from its three subcommittees were made public last week and provide a preliminary, long-term road map for both government and industry on how to enhance offshore safety.

According to the report card issued by the President’s Commission, the COS is off to a slow start. That is likely to change now that Charlie Williams has been named its Executive Director. The COS has considerable potential but must not limit itself to merely assisting companies comply with current regulations, which has been its focus to date. Instead, it must think more broadly about how to collect and share best practices in the industry.

Despite the importance of these entities, and because of the shortage of governmental resources allocated to safety research and development, the central fact is that the private sector will remain the principal laboratory for safety innovation for the foreseeable future. This means private companies bear a heavy burden – in fact, they hold a public trust – to commit adequate resources to advancing the frontier of offshore safety. The best companies do so already, but they can further raise the bar for the industry in two ways: by increasing their safety research budgets to move in tandem with other parts of their research budgets; and by sharing more widely their best practices so that those practices can be readily adopted by other companies and better understood by government regulators.

Industry and government must work together to promote this type of productive information sharing. The domestic offshore drilling safety agenda is large but manageable, difficult but critically important.

For higher safety standards to be achieved, every participant in the process must make strong and enduring commitments to its central objectives. Without that commitment, we will have broken our solemn pledge to the American people to reduce the risks of offshore drilling.

Michael R. Bromwich is the former director of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. He is now managing principal of The Bromwich Group.