Watchdog hits offshore drilling regulator on permit oversight

The federal agency tasked with regulating the safety of offshore oil-and-gas drilling does not consistently enforce rules for permit review on its regional offices, according to the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

OIG auditors found that the headquarters of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) largely allows its three regional offices for the Gulf Coast, California and Alaska to review and grant permits on their own terms.

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“BSEE conducts drilling permit review and approval activities without necessary oversight and clear direction from its headquarters office, which leaves the regional and district offices to review and approve permits without consistent guidance,” the OIG wrote in a Wednesday report.

“This is especially important because such permits are being approved at the district levels without the proper delegation of authority,” the office said.

The BSEE was created after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, as part of an offshore oversight reorganization aimed at improving industry safety.

But auditors found that three years after the BSEE started operations, it still hasn’t implemented some of the basic recommendations the OIG issued when the agency was chartered.

For example, the BSEE created a permit team early on to set national policies and procedures for reviewing applications to drill or modifications of those permits.

The first team disbanded after it failed, and the second team has thus far faced a similar fate, the OIG found.

“Although BSEE has made progress in the areas of staffing, permitting checklist development, and increased collaboration among staff, the most critical changes still need implementation,” it said.

Among the OIG’s other findings was that the bureau has not effectively implemented a program to ensure that engineers are properly trained and that only one regional office manages permits electronically.

In a response to the report that BSEE Director Brian Salerno wrote last month before it was released, he said the agency “generally agrees with the spirit and intent of the recommendations in the report.”

He argued that the OIG did not properly account for the vast improvements the BSEE has made in recent years when compared with Interior’s pre-Deepwater Horizon oversight.

“The draft report portrays BSEE as a static agency that has made little to no progress despite considerable oversight,” he said.

Salerno agreed to take some action on almost of the latest recommendations.