Inability to contain a deepwater oil spill prompted drilling ban, administration official says

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 6:57 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Oil companies drilling in the deep-water coastal waters do not know how to contain a spill like the one that has spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico -- a chief reason the Obama administration is extending a ban on offshore drilling, said Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

"They don't have a fix on what the most effective containment strategies are," Bromwich testified Tuesday before the presidential commission investigating the cause of the April 20 BP explosion and spill and the future of offshore drilling in the United States. The BP spill also has consumed response equipment and personnel from across the country, exposing vulnerabilities should deepwater drilling resume, he said.

Until improvements are in place, Bromwich said, the Department of the Interior does not intend to back away from a ban on deep-water drilling that has angered numerous companies and gulf residents because of its economic impact.

Bromwich, the new head of the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Services, appeared a day after a ban on deep-water drilling was recast by the Department of the Interior. The "pause" in drilling, which could last until Nov. 30, is based not on an operation's drilling depth but on the type of rigs and equipment in place to prevent a blowout like the one preceding the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, which killed 11. Bromwich's office oversees drilling licenses and inspections for the Interior Department, including for the 33 deepwater rigs now in place. The ban contains exemptions that will allow 12 rigs to continue in operation while 21 are idled, said Bromwich.

He will hold 12 hearings on deepwater drilling in communities in the Gulf, California and Alaska, before delivering a report by Oct. 31 to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Bromwich said. In announcing the ban's revival, Salazar said it could be lifted sooner than Nov. 30, but the timeline laid out by Bromwich suggests the department would take a full four months to make a decision.

Bromwich declined to be interviewed after his appearance at the commission.

The financial impact of the drilling ban has drawn the anger of many industry, elected officials and gulf residents, including Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), who on Monday told the commission to issue a quick recommendation to lift restrictions.

It is unlikely the commission could take a position soon, its co-chairmen said in a news conference. But after its first two days of hearings, they acknowledged that they share the urgency felt by Gulf residents and the oil industry about the impact of the ban.

The pleas to weigh economic harms have been compelling, said commission co-chairman William K. Reilly, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency during the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. "I have a different understanding of that than I did three or four days ago," he added.

The commission's role "is to build a fire" under the frontline investigators and Interior officials who can investigate the safety of deepwater rigs and their ability to contain a spill and to "look over their shoulder" in coming to their own opinion, said former Florida senator Bob Graham, the other co-chairman.

He and Reilly also said they would be asking what safety reviews of the existing rigs have been done since the BP explosion, with Graham questioning whether rigs could be brought back online individually if BOE inspectors were prepared to do rigorous inspections.

Bromwich said the existing deepwater sites would be inspection priorities, but that the other provisions driving the ban, including better response-planning industrywide, could take time to put in place.

"We have an honest disagreement" with the oil industry about the safety of their deepwater operations, Bromwich said. During a June 28 meeting with oil industry representatives, Bromwich said, the companies offered assurances. Yet, as Bromwich recounted the session, when he and Interior officials asked them if the industry had adequate plans to contain a large spill, "there was a pause and silence."

Bromwich, who took over the agency on June 15, faced pointed questions about the close relationships between members of his permitting and inspection staffs and the oil industry, including the Louisiana office where staff accepted gifts of sports tickets and other items from companies they were regulating, which was described in recent inspector general reports.

"I have read some of the same things you have about problems with my agency and very cozy relationship with industry," Bromwich told the commission. "We need to be arm's-length and aggressive enforcers.

"We are not going to politely ask the industry to fix things," he said. "We are going to demand they fix things and sanction industry almost immediately" for lapses, rather than asking for compliance as had previously been done, Bromwich said.

Discussion about the moratorium has overtaken much of the testimony before the commission in two days of hearings in New Orleans. The commission is working against a six-month deadline to report to President Obama on the cause of the BP explosion and ways to prevent a similar disaster and improve spill responses.

Bromwich said that his agency had been too casual in improving response plans and that the oil companies had been too casual in complying.

Bromwich also disputed that shallow-water drilling permits have been halted and are being denied or delayed, as several oil industry and rig providers told the commission Monday.

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