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Bromwich gets defensive about drilling inspector criticism

A key administration official charged with overseeing the country’s offshore drilling pushed back yesterday against allegations that drilling inspectors in the Gulf of Mexico did not have the necessary knowledge and experience to ensure the safety of rigs.

In a post on the White House blog, Michael Bromwich, head of the newly formed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, blasted a New Orleans Times-Picayune editorial that criticized the way inspections were conducted in the Gulf before the oil spill.

“These statements substituted rhetoric for factual accuracy and provided an extremely misleading picture of the roles of offshore drilling inspectors and more generally of the process by which our agency monitors and regulates offshore drilling,” Bromwich said.

What Bromwich doesn’t mention in the blog post, however, is that the Times-Picayune editorial is responding to allegations made by the national oil spill commission, which was formed by President Obama himself. Referring to conversations with inspectors, William Reilly, chairman of the oil spill commission, said last week:

When we asked about cementing and centralizers, they said very freely, ‘We don’t know about that stuff; we have to trust the companies. All they get is on-the-job training. It really is fairly startling, considering how sophisticated the industry has become. And the inspectors themselves are quite aware of their needs.

Yet none of this comes up in Bromwich’s post. Instead, he bashed the Times-Picayune, which has done fantastic reporting on the oil spill. Bromwich’s defensiveness is the latest indication that the White House is worried about the findings of the spill commission’s investigation. After a series of staff reports were released last month that criticized the White House’s response to the spill, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied many of the allegations and raised questions about the process.

In the post, Bromwich does acknowledge a number of shortcomings with the inspection process:

While our inspectors have been criticized for not routinely observing drilling operations, the fact is that our regulations don’t require it and our resources don’t permit it. Unfortunately, it has taken the tragedy of Deepwater Horizon to awaken the country to the critical shortage of resources that has prevented us from having a more robust, aggressive, and sophisticated inspections process.

And later:

Our own personnel have repeatedly identified shortcomings in the inspections process but have been stymied in their efforts to reform and upgrade the process because of decades of neglect of the agency and its resource needs.

But Bromwich places some of the blame for these inadequacies on a lack of funding for new inspectors from Congress:

Although Congress has provided us with an extra $23 million to help address this deficit, we need the President’s full request of $100 million to be enacted so we can do the job the public deserves.

As I’ve reported before, there are a total of 56 inspectors in the Gulf. Though Congress gave BOEM $23 million to hire new inspectors, the hiring process could take a great deal of time.

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