The director of the federal agency responsible for the drilling permit logjam in the Gulf of Mexico has said his agency is too understaffed to address the slowdown in permits — but he now plans to divert his already limited staff resources to the additional regulation of oilfield service providers and contractors.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement exists primarily to regulate oil and gas companies — but Director Michael Bromwich insists he has the legal authority to regulate drilling rig suppliers and other contractors as well.
“We have completed our review of the issue and have concluded that in fact we have broad legal authority over all activities relating to offshore leases,” Bromwich said earlier this month at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston.
But even if he has the authority, his previous comments suggest he doesn’t have the staff capability.
“We have barely 60 inspectors to cover 3,000-plus facilities in the Gulf of Mexico,” Bromwich has said. “If it weren’t so troubling, it would be laughable.”
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has been quick to point out the hypocrisy of Bromwich’s new push for regulatory expansion.
“Expanding the reach of your agency while simultaneously claiming you are ‘understaffed’ is nothing short of confusing,” Vitter wrote in a May 3 letter to Bromwich, asking the agency director to identify what staff he intends to direct away from their current responsibilities.
But neither Vitter nor his staff are holding their breath for an answer.
“We rarely hear back from him,” Vitter’s spokesman Luke Bolar said. “I think the last time we’ve actually heard from him was when he came in and had a face-to-face with the senator [in February].”
In the meantime, Vitter has placed a hold on a key Interior Department nominee until the agency issues at least 15 deepwater drilling permits. Since February, when Vitter placed the hold, BOEMRE has issued 12 permits. Prior to February, the agency had issued zero.
“This is nowhere near where they ought to be, but it’s more than zero” Bolar said. “Sen. Vitter definitely won’t stop [addressing this issue] when they get to 15, but he will release the hold.”
The push for more permits received a separate boost this week from a federal judge in New Orleans. In a case against the federal government by the Louisiana-based drilling company Ensco Offshore, federal judge Martin Feldman ordered Bromwich’s regulators to act on six pending drilling permit applications filed by companies that have contracts with Ensco.