National Journal: Why Obama’s Former Offshore Drilling Cop is Still Worried

April 20, 2015

Appeared at: National Journal
April 19, 2015

Michael Bromwich took over the Interior Department’s troubled offshore drilling branch in June 2010, roughly two months after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and oil from BP’s ruined well still was gushing into the sea.

At the time, Bromwich feared another catastrophe could unfold elsewhere in the Gulf.

“Clearly this horrible event had occured and I didn’t know any reason why what had happened once wouldn’t happen again, and so I was worried that there really could be another one at any time,” Bromwich, now a private consultant, said in an interview.

How concerned was he? On a scale of one to 10, with 10 representing a certainty that another disaster would unfold, he was around a six.

These days, Bromwich says he’s at two-and-a-half. Despite the federal reforms and greater industry focus on safety, Bromwich is still fearful about the safety of offshore drilling in the Gulf, where production has essentially returned to pre-spill levels.

And Congress has never put Interior’s tougher offshore regulations into law, meaning a future president could soften oversight.

“I do have some concerns that as Deepwater Horizon recedes further into our collective rearview mirrors, that the attention to some of these safety and environmental protection issues will diminish. I think that is inevitable in some ways, but that does not provide any comfort,” he said.

One risk, he says, is that the collapse in oil prices, which have fallen by around 50 percent since last summer, will test what the industry says has been increased focus on safety since the disaster.

“There is always a risk when companies are under financial pressure. The first things they tend to cut are those that don’t add to the bottom line,” Bromwich said. “It takes a very far-sighted executive or set of executives to realize that if you take the long view, continuing investments in safety and environmental protection do accrete to the bottom line.”

The Obama administration brought on Bromwich, an attorney and former Justice Department official with a history of probing troubled public agencies like the Houston Police Department’s crime lab, to overhaul the scandal-plagued drilling agency that was notoriously cozy with the oil industry.

The same agency—then called the Minerals Management Service—that was responsible for promoting offshore development and collecting the billions in revenues also was tasked with environmental and safety regulation.

So Browmich oversaw the dismantling of the the old model and set about creating separate agencies called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Revenue collection was moved elsewhere in Interior too.

“I think the new regulations made a difference. I think the additional resources that have been provided to the Interior agencies have made a difference. I think the organizational reforms in conjunction with the resource augmentation and the ability of the separate agencies to focus on more narrowly defined and less internally conflicted missions make a difference,” Bromwich said.

“And I think the fact that everybody, the industry and government, lived through this awful experience in 2010 makes it less likely that it will happen again,” he said.

But Bromwich is concerned that while Interior has issued various regulations in the wake of the spill, most recently draft rules floated last week that toughen design standards for subsea “blowout preventers, Congress has not put any of the tougher regulatory mandates into law.

“Congress has been MIA on these issues,” he said.

The lack of new offshore safety laws could become a lot more important after Obama leaves office.

Republicans running for president have uniformly blasted what they call Obama administration over-regulation. And while the offshore drilling rules have not been received as much attention as the EPA’s climate regulations, Bromwich fears they could face danger.

“There are plenty of ways to undermine the new regulatory regime even short of modifying the rules. You can deprive it of money, or you can put other limitations on it,” he said. “I do have some significant concerns that in a kind of a deregulatory frenzy people will begin to tinker with a system that does appear to be working pretty smoothly right now.”

Bromwich noted that there hasn’t been another disaster since Deepwater Horizon, while the industry appears comfortable with the current regime and the high amount of activity in the Gulf, despite the drop in prices. “I don’t think there is any evidence that the current system for offshore drilling regulation is broken. And so I think any attempts to fix what’s not broken would be pure ideological troublemaking,” he said.

Looking ahead, Bromwich said Interior needs to maintain its focus as industry practices for the hugely complex task of tapping oil in deep gulf waters continue to evolve.

“I think what Interior needs to continue to worry about is are they keeping up with current developments in the industry,” he said. “The continuing challenge is to have a regulatory structure that is dynamic enough to keep up with those technological developments.”

Bromwich, who left Interior at the end of 2011, had his share of battles with the industry and GOP lawmakers during his tenure. But five years after Deepwater Horizon, he said the outcome of the response to the disaster has been positive.

“The most important lesson is that in a time of crisis, when there has been a catastrophic accident, the Deepwater Horizon shows that with goodwill on both the industry and the government side you can pave a path forward and really improve things,” he said.

“You had really an unforeseen crisis not well prepared for, not well handled in the early stages, but the consequences of it, the results of it were a much safer and environmentally sound working environment in both exploration and production offshore,” Bromwich said. “The world has changed in a very significant way and one that the public should take greater confidence that the risks of that kind of accident have been significantly reduced.”