Former Interior official laments that public has forgotten about Gulf oil spill

Macondo is the name of the BP oil well that exploded on April 20, 2010.

Bromwich, who left Interior late in 2011, was speaking on a panel about Gulf of Mexico drilling activity at a National Press Club Newsmakers event in Washington, D.C. 

He bemoaned the lack of attention paid to safety procedures by politicians and the public, and attacked Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee for advocating offshore drilling plans he viewed as dangerous.

But Bromwich was challenged by a supporter of expanded offshore drilling who said new safety measures have dramatically increased permit waiting periods and unnecessarily hampered new activity.  

Bernard Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, said the mere productivity of the Gulf of Mexico should yield many more deepwater rigs than are operating today. But Weinstein said the Obama administration’s rules have paralyzed oil and gas firms in that region.

He noted productivity in the Gulf of Mexico is down 230,000 barrels per day compared to pre-Macondo levels.

Regulatory policy is much to blame for slow activity during a time of high oil demand, Weinstein said. New oversight has extended the time it takes to apply for a drilling permit to 207 days, up from 50 days, he added. The current pace and level of transparency for permit approval has also left oil and gas companies with few projects in the pipeline, he said.

Bromwich argued offshore drilling has become too politicized in the election year. That has distracted the public from demanding that oil and gas companies adhere to the safety issues Interior is trying to address with new rules, he said.

“I’ve heard nutty things like there was a grand plan to shut down the fossil fuel industry in this country starting with offshore,” Bromwich said.

Weinstein lamented that the energy issue is not more political this year when the economy needs a boost.

“Now that prices have fallen back nobody is talking about energy,” Weinstein said. “And I think that’s unfortunate.”

Steve LeVine, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy and a fellow with the New America Foundation, said the Chamber of Commerce has combined with oil and gas interests to make drilling an election issue. He said those groups are pushing expanded drilling as a jobs issue in swing states to curry favor with those voters for GOP candidates.

Bromwich said that Republicans have unfairly criticized Interior and the Obama administration for regulatory changes and for keeping some parts of the Gulf of Mexico off limits to deepwater exploration. 

That the administration’s five-year offshore drilling plan contains 15 lease sales and closes the Atlantic and Pacific coasts shows the Interior and the administration have not forgotten Macondo, Bromwich said. 

He added the offshore drilling plan House Republicans and a handful of Democrats passed last week included drilling opportunities off coastal areas for states that don’t want that kind of activity.

Still, Bromwich commended Congress for the level of funding it provided Interior the previous year to administer those new regulations. That funding will have to continue to increase to make up for what he called 28 years of inadequate funding for the former Minerals Management Service, the now-defunct agency that was in charge of drilling safety at the time of the Macondo disaster.

“If that stops or that slows, then we’re all in trouble,” Bromwich said.