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Lawmakers Attempt to Roll Back Expanded Oversight of Offshore Drilling

After millions of gallons of crude gushed into the Gulf during last year’s oil spill, the disaster triggered a continuing blame game between BP and its many contractors. It also got regulators pondering the need for expanding oversight to such contractors. Currently, operators of off-shore rigs are subject to safety regulations, but regulators don't have direct oversight of the contractors that work for those operators. 

In recent months, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management signaled that this could change. As we reported in April, the agency's head, Michael Bromwich, said that the limited oversight of contractors made “absolutely no sense." He suggested that the agency could move to bring major offshore oil contractors—like Transocean and Halliburton—under the agency’s enforcement reach and impose penalties if warranted.

But the Republican-led House Appropriations committee is having nothing of it. The committee passed a bill today that—in addition to stripping billions in funding from the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency—seeks to limit the offshore drilling agency’s ability to oversee contractors.

Here’s the language from the committee’s report accompanying the bill, first noted by the Hill:

The Committee is concerned with the Bureau’s stated intentions for the expansion of regulatory authority over non-lease holders under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA). The authority and need for this action has not been explained or justified to the Committee, nor how this diversion of limited resources would impact the Bureau’s current mission and objectives identified in the fiscal year 2012 request. The agency is directed to use all the resources provided toward the regulatory efforts presented in the fiscal year 2012 request and that no funds be expended for other purposes until the agency has fully explained its authority, intentions and objectives to the Committee and the public.

The beleaguered drilling agency underwent a major overhaul after the spill. But there are still questions about whether its inspectors have been adequately trained and are knowledgeable enough to handle their existing responsibilities—let alone take on new ones.

With a potential 2012 budget cut on the horizon, prospects are looking even more doubtful for expanded authority. Nonetheless, the agency is still recruiting and hiring new inspectors and this week announced it would start using teams of inspectors—as opposed to individuals—to conduct safety reviews.

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