BOEMRE to hire environmental scientists

Paula Dittrick
OGJ Senior Staff Writer

HOUSTON, Mar. 22 -- The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement plans to hire environmental scientists in the coming months to perform field work involving environmental studies and reviews to ensure offshore environmental compliance.

BOEMRE Director Michael R. Bromwich said he plans to visit 10 universities throughout the US to discuss environmental science-related opportunities being created with the agency’s reorganization. In addition, he also plans to appoint a chief environmental officer to strengthen environmental review and analysis.

“This person will be responsible for ensuring that environmental concerns are appropriately balanced in leasing and planning decisions and for helping set the scientific agenda relative to our oceans,” he said. “This is a new, high-profile, and extremely important position.”

Bromwich made his comments in New Orleans on Mar. 22 to open an Information Transfer Meeting (ITM). This year’s plenary session, “Moving Forward: Emerging from the Deepwater Horizon Event,” included discussion of reforms implemented following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bromwich said one immediate lesson learned from the spill was the need to raise standards for safety and environmental practices for offshore oil and gas drilling and development.

“And the truth is that these changes are long overdue,” Bromwich said. “It’s not unusual for serious reform to be triggered by a major catastrophe. In this case, it was the unprecedented deepwater blowout of the Macondo well, the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, the tragic deaths of 11 workers, and a spill of nearly 5 million bbl of oil.”

Changing from complacency
Bromwich said the blowout and spill “roused both government and industry out of a complacency that had developed over the past several decades…. That is changing.”

Government and industry agree advances in drilling and workplace safety must keep pace with increasingly risky operations, he said. Consequently, industry generally supports BOEMRE’s efforts to strengthen drilling regulations, and companies began to undertake their own efforts to raise standards for drilling and workplace safety, spill containment, and spill response.

“One of the key problems that we are addressing—and that cannot be avoided—is ensuring that government and industry make the fundamental reforms necessary to improve the safety and environmental protection in this massive industry while at the same time allowing for the continuity of operations and production,” he said.

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill & Offshore Drilling refuted “the notion that Deepwater Horizon was a one-in-a-million event,” Bromwich said, adding, “They identified 79 loss-of-well control accidents in the gulf between 1996 and 2009. That’s a lot more than one in a million.”

The commission also found federal oversight was deeply compromised by combining the responsibility for promoting the expansion of offshore leasing and the responsibility for ensuring safety under one agency, he said.

“Neither inspectors on the front lines nor senior Minerals Management Service (MMS) officials had the tools or the training to fully oversee deepwater offshore drilling. Both industry and government were unprepared to contain a deepwater well blowout. And, very importantly, MMS did not receive predictable and adequate funding needed to effectively oversee offshore drilling.”

Agency reforming
Consequently, BOEMRE has “undertaken the most aggressive and comprehensive reform of offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight in US history. This includes the reorganization of the former MMS to establish mission clarity and to strengthen oversight; and it also includes the development and implementation of heightened standards for drilling practices, safety equipment, and environmental safeguards.”

The reorganization of the former MMS is designed to remove those conflicts by clarifying and separating missions in three new agencies.

On Oct. 1, 2010, the revenue collection arm of the former MMS became the Office of Natural Resources Revenue and is located in a different part of Interior, with a reporting structure and chain of command completely separate from the offshore regulator.

Over the coming months, the offshore resource management and enforcement programs will be established as separate, independent organizations.

“The next steps in the reorganization are more difficult, but also extremely important: they involve separating the energy development functions and resource management functions from the safety and environmental enforcement missions of the nation’s offshore regulator,” Bromwich said.

“The Interior Department, as well as the President’s Commission, has concluded that the separation of these missions is essential to reforming the government’s oversight of offshore energy development.”

He outlines some details of the two new independent agencies: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).

BOEM will be responsible for managing development of the nation’s offshore resources. This involves ensuring that the environment is protected and that the nation’s offshore energy resources, including oil, gas, and renewable resources, are developed wisely. Meanwhile, BSEE will independently and rigorously enforce safety and environmental regulations.

“One of the important steps in our planning and analysis was to ensure that we can implement these changes while minimizing disruptions to the bureau’s daily operations,” Bromwich said. “Given the national focus on energy development and production at a time of high gasoline prices, this is essential.”

Resource management is being separated from safety oversight to allow permitting engineers and inspectors, who are central to overseeing safe operations, greater independence, more budgetary autonomy, and clearer missions and leadership focus, he said.

“Our goal is to create a tough-minded, but fair, regulator that can effectively keep pace with the risks of offshore drilling and will promote the development of safety cultures in offshore operators.”

BOEMRE’s Gulf of Mexico Region’s ITM provides a forum for the sharing of results, methodologies, and ideas related to environmental studies. Scientists and researchers present and discuss findings in support and funded in part by the bureau’s environmental studies program.

Contact Paula Dittrick at paulad@ogjonline.com.



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