2011-12-04 "Offshore drilling watchdog stepping down" by Jennifer A. Dlouhy from San Francisco Chronicle
When Michael Bromwich took over the helm of the agency overseeing offshore drilling 17 months ago, oil was still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, and a handful of ethical lapses had shattered public confidence in the ability of federal regulators to police the industry.
Now, Bromwich is leaving the Interior Department after leading a major overhaul of the government's offshore drilling oversight programs and imposing a swath of new regulations designed to improve the safety of coastal oil and gas exploration.
But he is not confident that all of the changes imposed since last year's Deepwater Horizon disaster will stick.
"People have short memories," Bromwich said. "We have done everything we possibly can to institutionalize these reforms (and) to create new substantive rules. But there are a lot of people who have amnesia, who make believe that Deepwater Horizon never happened or (think) it was a total anomaly."
Bromwich warns that major challenges remain for the offshore drilling industry and the regulators who monitor it, especially as federal agencies struggle to compete with oil companies to recruit top-notch petroleum engineers. Some industry leaders and their allies in Congress also are pushing to roll back new regulations imposed since last year's oil spill.
Bromwich also is campaigning for extra dollars for the two federal bureaus that were created to replace the former Minerals Management Service.
"This agency for 28 years fought a losing battle for resources," he said. "We have now started to make up for lost ground over the last year and a half," but possible across-the-board budget cuts and planned congressional spending "make me quite concerned about whether the agency will have the resources and tools it needs to do the job that the public expects it to do."
Bromwich formally stepped down as head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on Thursday, but he will serve as a special adviser to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar through the end of the year.
His successor is retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, who led the government's response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster after June last year.
Bromwich became a lightning rod for criticism from industry leaders and some lawmakers, who said the government's approval rate of offshore drilling projects slowed unnecessarily under his watch.
Jim Noe, director of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition that has pushed for swifter government approvals of coastal exploration, is hopeful that the pace will pick up.
"Adm. Watson comes into this job with a strong understanding of the industry and a reputation for reliability and efficiency - precisely the qualities needed to improve the offshore permitting process," Noe said.
Many industry officials instantly viewed Bromwich as an adversary after he was sworn in in June 2010. And they were skeptical of his lack of experience with oil and gas drilling.
Bromwich acknowledged that what he knew about offshore drilling before taking on the job "could fit into a thimble." But, he insists, "When you're thrust into a crisis, you learn about the issues quickly."
And, Bromwich said, his lack of knowledge was an asset - not a liability - because it gave him a fresh perspective to judge what worked and what didn't.
For instance, Bromwich said, it drove his decision to upend the federal government's traditional practice of only regulating oil and gas companies that hold leases to drill offshore - instead of also policing the thousands of service companies and other contractors that work for them.
"That has not made me a popular guy in the industry," Bromwich conceded. But the former federal prosecutor said he never got "persuasive or convincing answers" justifying the old approach.
Leaders of industry trade groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, tangled with Bromwich over the breadth - and speed - of new regulations imposed after the gulf spill. They also vehemently opposed a five-month moratorium on deep-water drilling and have accused the government of dragging its feet in approving offshore exploration.
Some oil company executives have taken a different view. Chevron CEO John Watson has repeatedly insisted that regulators are not "trying to slow-walk permits" and instead are "trying to do their job well."