Bromwich takes on drilling reform

Michael Bromwich spent years driving past the Interior Department’s cavernous Washington headquarters, first as the Justice Department’s inspector general in the 1990s and later as an attorney specializing in corporate and organizational probes.

He never went inside and admits he isn’t even sure he knew what the building was.

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But now, as the Interior Department’s top offshore drilling regulator, Bromwich finds himself in the middle of a task as massive as the building itself: reforming the agency’s notoriously troubled offshore drilling branch while managing politically explosive decisions about deepwater drilling.

It’s not a role he had envisioned himself in, after a career involving probes of FBI misconduct and problems at the Houston police department.

“My entire career has been in the criminal justice system,” said Bromwich, the director of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE).

“I have obviously thought about various public service opportunities in the last 11 years. I did not think it would be anywhere outside of Justice. I certainly didn’t think it would be here,” Bromwich, 57, told The Hill in an exclusive interview Thursday at Interior’s headquarters.

But Bromwich, who has made a career out of conducting high-profile investigations, said his lack of oil industry experience has been an asset in the role he began last June while tens of thousands of gallons of oil were still spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.

“I think there are huge benefits from not coming from this world,” Bromwich said.

“I have asked a lot of questions on issues that were just taken for granted — they were the accepted ways of doing business here, they were the accepted practices and procedures,” he said.

Within days of arriving at BOEMRE, for instance, Bromwich announced the agency would form an internal investigations unit to probe allegations of misconduct by federal employees and energy companies.

But Bromwich has his share of critics.

Nearly a year after taking over as head of Interior’s offshore drilling arm, Bromwich is under fire from the oil industry, Republicans and Gulf Coast lawmakers from both parties, who have ripped him over what they call an unacceptably slow approval pace for drilling permits.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) cleared her throat with praise for Bromwich when asked Wednesday about his tenure. She called him a “gentleman” who has been respectful and attentive to her requests for meetings. But her praise quickly turned to criticism.

“[H]e didn’t really have, when he came into this job, a real understanding of how this industry operates, and it has been a real challenge,” Landrieu said, alleging this has “set the process back” for post-spill development.

“I don’t think it was the right choice,” she said of Bromwich’s appointment in June. “His skill set is a slightly different kind of skill set than, in my view, what was required for what he was asked to do.”

Bromwich says the criticism doesn’t faze him.

“I have a pretty thick skin, and more than anything else I am amused by some of the personal attacks on me,” Bromwich said.

He rejects claims by some Republicans and industry officials that he is seeking to shut down offshore energy production in the United States.

“What could my possible personal or political motive for that be? Am I going to get a gold watch if I shut down the industry?” he asked. “I don’t think so.

“Nobody from the White House or anybody else has told me to do my job in any other way,” Bromwich continued. “And so for people to attribute political motives or a political agenda to me when I have none in this job, there’s just a huge space between those claims and the reality.”

In June 2010, President Obama charged Bromwich with overhauling the newly minted BOEMRE — the successor agency of Interior’s much-maligned Minerals Management Service, which was panned for falling down on the job in the run-up to the Gulf oil spill.

Bromwich, in coordination with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, moved to impose a series of enhanced safety regulations.

And he has been tasked with implementing a plan announced before his arrival to do away with what Salazar has called inherently conflicting missions. Revenue collections have been moved elsewhere in the department, away from the offshore regulation.

The second phase of the overhaul is in progress — splitting what’s left of the agency into two departments — one that promotes resource development offshore and a separate branch to enforce environmental and safety regulations.

It’s a process at the heart of what officials call the need to ensure that environmental protection has a strong, independent role in offshore regulation. Bromwich said the division is on track for completion in October.

Over the last year, Bromwich has participated in a slew of meetings with oil industry officials on the agency’s new regulations and its efforts to restart offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

While industry groups have blasted BOEMRE’s efforts publicly, Bromwich says they sing a different tune behind closed doors.

“What I read in the outside world is very different from what I hear in here,” he said. “When I meet with individual operators and when I meet with groups of operators, they’re not critical. They claim to fully understand what we’ve done and why we’ve done it.”

The oil industry knew BOEMRE could not approve any deepwater permits in the Gulf until companies had proven they could contain a massive well blowout on a par with the one that caused last year’s oil spill. But the industry continued to blame BOEMRE for delaying drilling anyway, he said.

“That’s unfortunate, because if they had said publicly what they said in here, the political dynamic would have been very, very different,” Bromwich said.

Bromwich touted BOEMRE’s efforts to issue permits in the Gulf, noting that as of Thursday, the agency had issued 14 deepwater permits for unique wells in the region since February.

He blasted a series of offshore drilling bills passed by House Republicans in the last week as shortsighted. GOP legislation setting a timeline for the agency to act on drilling permit requests would “tie our people up in paperwork.” A separate bill setting deadlines to hold delayed Gulf of Mexico lease sales using pre-spill environmental analyses is “sort of a suicide pact,” he said, because it would create a legal mess.

But, amid all the criticism, Bromwich has his defenders.

Sierra Club lobbyist Athan Manuel, a veteran of offshore drilling battles, said before Bromwich’s reforms, oil companies “were given the keys to the coast and that was it.”

“I think he is very serious about building an organization that is very serious about managing our coasts, something [the former Minerals Management Service] never did,” Manuel said.

But Manuel says environmental groups will be closely watching the decisions Bromwich makes in the coming months on a range of issues, including whether the agency greenlights plans by Shell Oil to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast — a plan environmentalists call unsafe in such a remote and fragile ecosystem.

A former colleague at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson — where Bromwich headed a group specializing in investigations — said he is well-suited to tackling the overhaul at Interior.

“He is utterly fearless. Not reckless, but he is not afraid to take on new challenges. That is really what he kind of enjoys doing,” said Bill McGuinness, the head of the litigation department at Fried Frank.

“He likes to have a flurry of activity around him,” McGuiness said. “He thrives in that environment.”

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