The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a strongly worded rebuke of the federal offshore safety agency Friday, finding that poor management has caused it to fail in its most basic functions overseeing oil and gas operations in the Gulf.
The GAO report finds the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which was created by President Barack Obama in 2011 to enhance oversight of offshore oil and gas operations and end a “cozy relationship” between government regulators and industry, has undermined its own development with constant “restructuring.”
The findings closely track a series of our Eyewitness Investigations in recent years, which exposed the bureau’s lack of follow-though monitoring oil and gas companies’ safety management systems, its difficulties hiring and training safety inspectors and its unexplained failure to staff its environmental enforcement division.
The safety bureau, known as BSEE, “has been operating since its inception without actually prescribed procedures, policies and guidelines and without even recording the results in a coherent way of its activities,” said Frank Rusco, director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment division.
Rusco’s strongest words were reserved for BSEE’s utter failure to staff its Environmental Enforcement Division, which has been downgraded to a local branch in spite of millions of dollars in special funding to build it up as a national program.
“This environmental group that had been set up and was doing that was understaffed,” Rusco said. “Congress … recognized that and provided money specifically earmarked to hire staff to fill those positions. But, to date, those positions have not been filled. The BSEE management did not have a good explanation for why they haven’t filled those positions. In fact, they seem to have no explanation whatsoever.”
In September 2015, WWL-TV obtained internal government reports indicating that BSEE leadership in Washington had blocked the hiring of desperately needed staff, leaving the Environmental Enforcement Division unable to conduct proactive investigations because it was overwhelmed by a backlog of reactive paperwork.
The GAO report focuses on a “lack of coherent leadership” at BSEE headquarters in the Washington, D.C., area. The agency has had three directors in its five years of existence. The agency’s first director, Michael Bromwich, specifically promised a training center for government inspectors in New Orleans, but WWL-TV discovered that the project was scuttled after Bromwich went back to the private sector.
Bromwich also got the funding from Congress for a robust Environmental Enforcement Division, only to have it understaffed by current Director Brian Salerno and Deputy Director Margaret Schneider. In September, Bromwich told WWL-TV he had spoken with Salerno and was “confident he shares the vision of environmental enforcement that led to the creation of the EED.”
The GAO report says moving the environmental functions under regional control could weaken environmental compliance. In its official response, the Department of the Interior, the parent agency of BSEE, contends this restructuring will actually enhance its environmental enforcement.
Assistant Interior Secretary Janice Schneider counter-intuitively argues that the environmental division was restructured to the regional level to address previous recommendations to elevate those functions to the national level. She says environmental compliance “remains a national program on par with other national programs,” but then says those functions are “best managed onsite, from BSEE’s field offices.”
The GAO report also says field staff at the regional offices, including the main Gulf of Mexico office in Harahan, have been working hard but stymied by these kinds of management decisions.
“What we see is a disconnect between management in Washington and what’s going on out in the field,” Rusco said.
The agency also has a poor track record with transparency. WWL-TV filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for other records related to the Environmental Enforcement Division in March 2015 and still has not received the documents.
BSEE has repeatedly failed to provide the station with public records in a timely manner and even tried to claim that some records WWL-TV asked for did not exist before eventually providing them. An environmental group in California had to sue the agency to get it to turn over records related to fracking operations in the Gulf after BSEE declined to provide the permits and more than a sample of those fracking locations to WWL-TV.