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New Conflict-of-Interest Policy for Federal Employees Overseeing Offshore Drilling

The Houston Chronicle reported late last night that Michael Bromwich — director of the newly formed Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which replaced the much-maligned Minerals Management Service — has imposed a wide-reaching conflict-of-interest policy on federal employees overseeing offshore drilling.

Employees at the now-defunct Minerals Management Service have been widely criticized for having too close a relationship with the industry the agency regulated.

According to the Chronicle, under the new policy:

Bureau employees now must tell supervisors about any potential conflict of interest and submit formal requests not to be assigned inspections or other official duties when those conflicts arise.

The employees also must ask to step down when their inspections or official duties involve a company employing a family member or close personal friend.

And for at least two years, they cannot perform inspections or other work involving former employers in the industry. Lawmakers in the House and Senate have advanced proposals for a similar two-year timeout.

Former MMS Director Elizabeth Birnbaum, in her first public appearance since stepping down in May, outlined for members of the national oil spill commission last week the complexities involved in trying to change the relationship between industry and drilling regulators. As I noted in a story last week:

Because inspectors have to live on the Gulf coast to have access to offshore rigs, Birnbaum said it is difficult to separate them from the oil industry, which maintains a massive presence in the region.

Citing a series of scathing reports that found inspectors have accepted gifts from industry, Birnbaum said, “Inspectors who accepted gifts had extensive social, community, family relationships with industry.” Even if new inspectors were hired, “those inspectors would still have to live there,” she said, highlighting the difficulty of separating MMS employees from the industry. In addition, she said, it is difficult to hire inspectors who do not have connections to industry because “historically, people with experience working in the industry, have had the experience necessary to be inspectors.”

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