Obama's top offshore drilling official clashes with GOP over oil spill

The Interior Department’s top offshore drilling regulator faced off with Republicans Thursday during a heated hearing in which GOP lawmakers bashed the administration over its response to last year’s massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Michael Bromwich, who heads the Interior Department's offshore energy arm, pushed back against comments by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour Thursday that the administration's beefed-up drilling-safety standards are overly burdensome. Barbour argued that the administration should have focused on enforcing current regulations rather than imposing new ones and he downplayed the risks of another major oil spill.

“There have been more than 31,000 oil wells drilled in the Gulf of Mexico in the last 50 years since they opened the Gulf and there has never been anything like this ever to happen,” Barbour said at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.

But Bromwich — director of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) — countered that the standards are essential for protecting against future spills.

Bromwich, who also appeared before the Oversight panel, pointed to a report by the national oil-spill commission released early this year that said government regulations before the spill were inadequate and needed to be revised. And he noted that there have been 79 incidents of a loss of well control, which led to the Macondo well blowout, between 1996 and 2009.

“Another way to describe that is 79 near-misses, 79 almost-Deepwater Horizons,” Bromwich said, referring to the oil rig that exploded on April 20, 2010, resulting in the death of 11 workers and spilling 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf over the course of almost three months.

“To say that the risk is 1 in a million, or 1 in ‘x’ thousand of deepwater wells drilled is not accurate,” Bromwich continued. “We will never be able to reduce the risk to zero. We know that and you know that. But we have to work constructively to try to diminish those risks in a balanced way so that we don’t impose inappropriately high costs on industry and yet we do raise the bar on safety.”

Bromwich also argued that the administration's response to the spill was swift and noted that it is working diligently to approve permits for offshore drilling projects. The Interior Department has issued 15 deepwater permits since the spill.

Barbour, a Republican, argued that the Obama administration overcompensated in the aftermath of last year’s massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill by imposing a suite of regulations that have hurt the oil industry and the economy of the region.

“We’re not going to outlaw left turns because they’re a little more dangerous than regular driving,” Barbour said, arguing that the administration should have focused on enforcing current regulations rather than imposing new ones.

Barbour’s comments come as congressional Republicans are ramping up their criticism of the administration’s response to the spill more than one year after the disaster.

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who invited Barbour to testify, joined other committee Republicans in arguing the administration made a number of missteps in its response to the spill and, more than a year after the disaster, is slow-walking the approval of drilling permits in the Gulf.

Barbour also took aim at the administration's immediate efforts to get the Macondo well under control. He argued that the federal response to last year’s spill amounted to a “command and control” scenario in which the states were not given enough authority to address the disaster.

“They had a hard time. They seemed slow to try to get in charge. We had problems I was talking about with command and control,” Barbour said. “But I don’t want to be overly critical because when stuff like this happens you make mistakes.”

Barbour argued that the response to the spill should be conducted under the Stafford Act, which would give more authority to the states, rather than the Oil Pollution Act.

Barbour’s comments echo the conclusions of a report released Thursday by Republicans on the Oversight panel, which argues the administration failed to adequately lead in the aftermath of the spill.

The Obama administration, for its part, rejected the findings of Issa’s report.

“From the beginning, the administration brought all available resources to bear as we waged the largest response to an oil spill in U.S. history,” White House spokesman Clark Stevens said in a statement. “The administration’s effort — led by the National Incident Commander, Admiral Thad Allen — helped mitigate the impacts of our nation’s biggest oil spill.”