Oil, gas regulators get 25% raise to stay with federal office

05 17, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

The federal government is giving some of its beleaguered oil and gas regulators a raise as it tries to strengthen its four Louisiana field offices and compete with the private sector to recruit 200 more people to review and approve offshore drilling proposals, permits and spill-response plans. Empowered by a congressional spending bill passed in December, the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement granted 25 percent raises over the base salaries of 102 petroleum engineers, geophysicists and geologists stationed in its New Orleans, Houma, Lafayette and Lake Charles offices.

The new rates took effect April 22 and have been touted by the bureau's director, James Watson, as a key tool for recruiting and retaining employees in competition with private industry.

The employees actually are getting an 11 percent raise over their current salaries because they already had a cost-of-living adjustment equal to a 14 percent over their base pay. For example, a typical senior petroleum engineer or geoscientist making $95,459 before the raise would now make $104,524. Survey data collected by the Society of Petroleum Engineers show that the average private-sector geoscientist made $152,475 in 2011 and the average drilling engineer earned $175,363.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has hired 28 new engineers since it was reorganized from the old Minerals Management Service following the BP oil spill in April 2010. Five of them were recruited and hired this year after the raise was approved by Congress, the bureau said.

Most of the work of reviewing offshore drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico is handled by the bureau's engineers, and they've come under heavy fire in the past two years. First, the attention was on the role they played in approving permits and plans for the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig. They approved stock spill-response plans, failed to check tests for a piece of safety equipment and took just a few minutes to approve 11th-hour changes in BP's well design and drilling operations. President Barack Obama said the regulatory agency had a "cozy relationship" with the oil industry and ordered its overhaul.

But when that reform came in the form of three new agencies and new leadership, the scientists and engineers were demonized again by Louisiana politicians who blamed them for slow-walking permits for an industry trying to get back to work. The conflict reached a head in September when U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, tried to meet with a bureau official in charge of permits and was turned away from the New Orleans office, then said the agency was akin to the Gestapo, Nazi Germany's secret police.

With morale at an all-time low, even the government's most outspoken critics say more competitive pay is justified. But some question why the raises are also going to the engineers who approved plans and permits for the Deepwater Horizon.

"It's reasonable they should get a raise and it's reasonable that the congressional delegation should back off, but it's also reasonable to have some accountability for the people who are at least partially responsible for the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States," said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

The bureau declined to comment on whether any regulators were disciplined as a result of the Deepwater Horizon investigation, although none of the various accident investigations found their decisions had been a direct cause of the rig explosion and oil spill.