Offshore drilling permit times shorter, agency says

03 15, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

The new man in charge of issuing permits for offshore oil and gas drilling told a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday that his agency has shaved the processing time for permits by a third in the past year. But James Watson, director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, told the panel that "anybody who expects that the pace of permitting will automatically be the same as before the Deepwater Horizon are ignoring the lessons of that disaster."

"A lot of attention has been paid to our permitting pace. I sympathize with the people who depend on these permits for jobs, the same people so affected by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy" in 2010, Watson said. "I will commit to rooting out inefficiencies and making the permitting process as straightforward, practical and understandable for the industry as possible, but not at the expense of safety."

Watson said the average time for processing a permit had dropped from 97 days between last March and September to 62 days since September.

"Things can get better, but I'm not about the numbers," said Watson. "I'm still about safety and environmental protection."

Watson said his agency had increased the number of inspectors by 50 percent in the nearly two years since the disaster, including 28 new inspectors in the Gulf of Mexico region, and increased the number of engineers by 10 percent, but still has a long way to go to be adequately staffed.

"It will take a couple of years for us to reach our goals," he said. "I think we will make big strides this year."

Even as Watson, Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and Robert Abbey, director of the Bureau of Land Management, were testifying about the administration's regulatory regime, the seven former members of the presidential commission that investigated the causes and lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster resurfaced to announce that they are forming a new organization -- Oil Spill Commission Action -- to monitor how well government and industry have responded to their safety recommendations. To that end, they plan to issue a report card, grading Congress, the administration and industry, and timed to the second anniversary of the spill in April.

"The commissioners have become increasingly concerned that efforts to implement the recommendations are ebbing in spite of all that still needs to be done," said William Reilly, co-chairman of the commission. "We want to keep a spotlight on what's needed to ensure the nation moves forward with offshore energy development safely and responsibly."

Some of the commission's recommendations have or are in the process of coming to fruition. The Senate on Wednesday approved a transportation bill that includes a provision directing 80 percent of the BP Clean Water Act fines to restoration efforts in the five Gulf states, a top commission objective.

The American Petroleum Institute has established an industry institute to raise the bar on safety, another commission recommendation, though commissioners did not want it to be a creature of a trade group like API.

And, while federal regulators did not accept all the commission's recommendations, they did impose far more rigorous standards and permitting procedures.