Bromwich says his oil industry savvy 'could fit in a thimble' when he was named offshore regulator

11 29, 2011 by The Times-Picayune

Michael Bromwich, who led the overhaul of the regulatory regime for offshore drilling after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, said Monday that he had barely a thimble-full of knowledge of the oil and gas industry when he took the job in June of last year.

But Bromwich said his status as an outsider, not inured to the practices of the past, served him well in raising standards in a manner that he believes may have saved the industry from the wholesale shutdown it would have faced had there been a repeat of the BP blowout and spill.

"I think there are many people who realize there was a near-death watch on for offshore drilling," Bromwich said of the fragile future for drilling when he assumed his post in June 2010, a time when he said there was a widespread sense that, "one more accident and the game may be over."

Bromwich made the comment to reporters at a valedictory news conference in a fifth-floor conference room at the Interior Department, where he held countless meetings with representatives of the oil and gas industry since he was named by President Barack Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to make sweeping changes in the way offshore drilling is overseen by the federal government.

"We are expecting more, and we are yielding less," said Bromwich, who said industry had adapted to changes they know are in their long-term best interests.

As of Thursday, Bromwich will be succeeded by retiring Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, named to head of the Interior Department's new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The department was created as part of Bromwich's breakup of the former Minerals Management Service into three separate agencies. Watson, beginning in June 2010, served as the federal on-scene coordinator for the government response to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Bromwich will serve the remainder of the year as a counselor to Salazar before returning to the private sector, though he doesn't know in what capacity. He said would like to stay involved on the issues he has dealt with for the past 18 months, but, mindful of the poisonous consequences of Washington's "revolving door," would impose on himself a "lifetime ban" on "direct dealings" with the bureaus he created and led.

More so than even Obama and Salazar, Bromwich was the point man on the regulatory response to the BP disaster and a lightning rod for criticism from industry groups and most especially Gulf Coast lawmakers, who felt the administration went too far, too slowly in imposing new burdens on the oil and gas industry.

Bromwich came to the job with a stellar reputation for investigating, monitoring and fixing troubled government entities, but mostly in the criminal justice sphere.

Bromwich acknowledged Monday that when he took the assignment at Interior, "I don't think it's too much to say that the amount I knew about offshore drilling and the industry and the issue, you could fit in a thimble.

"But when you are thrust into the middle of a crisis you learn quickly," Bromwich said.

"I think it was actually an advantage," he said. "I didn't have any conceptions, let alone preconception, about the world I was coming into."

Bromwich cited as a prime example his decision, contrary to past practice, to regulate contractors, and not just operators, in the case of egregious violations like the Deepwater Horizon disaster, sending out citations for safety violations not just to BP but also contractors Transocean and Halliburton, with more citations of the three to come in the next few weeks.

"To me that's an example of his misunderstanding and his lack of knowledge," said Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, among Bromwich's severest critics in the Congress. "That's not a strength, that's an exact weakness. He's trying to create an atmosphere so that the next time there is an accident, there is going to be a multiplicity of finger pointing."

Going directly after contractors, Landry said, undoes "a nice linear hierarchy of how things operate in the oil and gas industry."

"Mr. Bromwich is a liberal," Landry said. "He believes the federal government is the ultimate authority and knows better than everybody else on the planet."

Another Bromwich antagonist, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said of his parting, "I wish Mr. Bromwich well as he leaves. And I certainly hope Admiral Watson brings a much more can-do attitude to properly permitting the gulf drilling we so desperately need."

Jim Noe, executive director of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, who also tangled with Bromwich at times, said Monday that, "Director Bromwich had a difficult job to do. Public scrutiny of the agency was intense and the subject matter was complex. While those with some more familiarity with the industry might have faced a less daunting learning curve, I think the director did his best under trying circumstances.

"Going forward, the new agency still must prove that it is able to address permit concerns in a timely and effective manner if we are to revitalize exploration and development in the Gulf," Noe said. "Achieving that result is the key to restoring the economy of the region."

Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, offered an unambiguous salute to Bromwich for his service.

"Following the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, Director Bromwich's leadership was essential in transforming the agency charged with regulating U.S. offshore oil and gas drilling from an industry lapdog into an industry watchdog," Markey said.