Journalism in the Public Interest

Oil Spill Panel Finds Obama’s Regulatory Overhaul Insufficient, Industry ‘Complacent’

The Obama administration’s overhaul of the federal agency that regulates offshore drilling doesn’t go far enough to prevent conflicts of interest and enhance safety, according to leaders of the presidential panel studying the causes of the Gulf oil spill.

Obama's overhaul involved replacing top leadership, giving the agency a new name, and separating the offices overseeing safety from the offices collecting royalties. When the changes were announced, critics said tthe agency’s competing interests weren’t fully addressed. The spill panel seemed to take a similar view, reported the Houston Chronicle: 

[Commission Co-Chairman William] Reilly said the government may need to “construct an impenetrable wall” that keeps environmental and safety regulators separated from officials who sell leases.

In a draft recommendation, the commission suggests creation of a new agency in the Interior Department to focus on safety issues and environmental analysis.

The creation of a new agency, noted the Chronicle, would require legislative action by Congress.

As the Wall Street Journal noted, the panel also said that training for offshore drilling inspectors was “inadequate and unacceptable." The Journal pointed out that seven months after the spill, flaws in the inspection program still had not been fixed:

As it has for four decades, that program sends inspectors armed with little more than checklists and pencils into the Gulf to ensure the safety of more than 3,500 oil platforms and drilling rigs.

It’s not the first time the spill panel has criticized the agency’s inspectors. Michael Bromwich, head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy, said in October that the agency was moving to correct deficiencies in its training program.

The panel’s focus wasn’t just on regulators. BP, Halliburton, and Transocean had made decisions regarding the well that “turned out to add risk to the operation,” and the industry as a whole had a culture of complacency.

These statements come as the Obama administration this week announced a plan to bank offshore drilling for the next seven years in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of the Atlantic and Pacific—a reversal of its plan in March to open up these areas for drilling.

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The government can create all the agencies they want, but without proper inspection of the wells another disaster will not be averted.  Inspectors need to have an intimate knowledge of the process - at least equal to those performing the task.  They also need the authority to make decisions objectively without influence, and generally those are not popular.  As an engineer, I can personally tell you that stopping a concrete pour on the 43rd floor of building prompted about 20 calls from architects/owners/investors in about 5 minutes.  I was not a popular guy, but I don’t get paid to be popular, I represent the safety of those that will occupy the building.
It would seem the process needs a major overhaul in the drilling industry.

The stiffening of regulation is only as powerful as the regulators and inspectors will power to resist being bribed.

So far their will power sits left of zero.

Big oil owns Washington DC, and they aren’t about to let a lame duck President throw a monkey wrench into the works they created over decades.

Things do not change in DC they only get more expensive to overlook.

The key is that the inspectors in the field know that they have the full support of the agency. A broken jock strap system doesn’t work.

Big Oil owns everything in the world, not just the USA.

So of course the progressive solution to perceived weakness in the Salazar/Obama approach (which has offered some resistance to Big Oil, e.g., the BP fund and the seven year moratorium on Gulf drilling)  is to re-elect Republicans, so that we can then have ONLY congressmen and presidents who represent the interests of big oil and nothing else.

I mean if they’re not going to be pure in their approach to oil companies and green power, why let Democrats have any influence at all? Even Ralph Nader owns energy stocks, I hear tell…

At least we have recently taken some baby steps against the enormity of oil’s domination. The people of California defeated prop. 23. Gray Davis took down Enron by getting Californians to conserve energy.

What can I say? Progressives are ready to throw the country back to the republican oil-ogarchy, and as far as oil companies are concerned, it’s not a moment too soon.

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Feb. 10, 2011, 9:30 p.m.

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