GOP Hopes to Undercut Offshore Regulator, Say House Democrats

Republicans are taking aim at an agency created by President Obama after BP oil spill

The site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen from the back of a U.S. Coast Guard cargo plane in 2010. Republicans are re-evaluating a regulatory agency established by Obama in the aftermath of the spill. (Tom Williams/Roll Call via Getty Images)

Republican lawmakers are trying to undermine the federal regulatory agency responsible for overseeing the safety and environmental concerns of offshore oil and gas operations, said Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee at a Wednesday hearing.

The complaints stem from a provision in the committee Republicans’ recently released draft bill that would direct the Interior secretary to look for potential “inefficiencies or duplication between the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement,” which both regulate aspects of offshore drilling.

The committee held a legislative hearing on that draft bill Wednesday. Among its provisions, the bill would increase what states receive from federal offshore revenue-sharing plans and would open up much of the Outer Continental Shelf to leasing, at the secretary’s discretion, while limiting the executive branch’s authority to permanently remove leasing areas.

Democrats say the study’s direction and likely agency reorganization following it would undermine the BSEE, an agency created in the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill that ravaged the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

“This draft legislation would put our coasts at much higher risks, and I believe the secretary is doing enough of that on his own,” California Rep. Alan Lowenthal said in his opening remarks.

The Obama administration determined that a new regulatory agency was needed in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. Previously, BOEM, the agency within Interior responsible for lease sales and revenue generation, oversaw both the regulatory and financial side of the leasing program — likely generating conflicts of interest, a commission at the time concluded.

Michael Bromwich, a former director of BSEE, testified Wednesday that a return to the previous system of regulation “is a dangerous idea that would significantly raise the risk of a catastrophic offshore accident.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has already indicated he would like to see a restructuring of the agencies under the department’s umbrella, hinting that he would prefer an approach that moves more of Interior’s decision-making away from headquarters in Washington. Part of that approach, media outlets have reported, might be the merger of BOEM and BSEE.

Bromwich, however, calls such reorganizations disruptive to agency missions.

“In my experience, reorganizations are too often undertaken for reasons of executive vanity, as a way for a new executive or team of executives to put their immediate imprint on an organization, whether the changes make management and organizational sense or not,” he said.

Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute acknowledged when pressed by Democrats that BSEE “has not been obstructing the industry.” Milito, though, noted industry wants to “maximize the efficiencies” of interactions with the federal government.

For Republicans, the offshore oil bill represents corrective measures for limitations they believe the Obama administration placed on offshore oil development.

“This bill attempts to restore access and to provide a more practical and functional path to development for all stakeholders,” said Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gosar of Arizona.

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