NEW ORLEANS -- The new, beefed-up federal offshore safety bureau is struggling to impose new safety rules as we approach the third anniversary of the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and BP oil spill.
In December, Eyewitness News broke the story that the Interior Department was not using its full powers to make sure oil companies improved their offshore safety systems. At that point, more than a year after the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement was granted the power to unilaterally audit the safety systems on rigs and platforms, the agency had not conducted a single such safety review.
And, also at that time, only four companies had hired independent third parties to audit their safety structures and processes.
Now, we've discovered that in an effort to speed up safety, the safety regulators granted oil companies a way to avoid a level of oversight.
On Dec. 28, BSEE Director James Watson sent a letter to the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas operators offering to waive a 30-day pre-audit review by regulators to any company that turns in a third-party audit by March 29.
The deadline for the full audits is in November, and Watson warned that the deadline would not be pushed back. But, he said, he understood that this first auditing year would be difficult for some and the deadline comes on the heels of hurricane season.
Agency spokesman Nicholas Pardi said Watson's letter also sought to get more audits in earlier, so they wouldn't all come to the federal agency at the same time. He also said getting the reports early would allow the bureau to learn some lessons before the later audits come in.
Members of President Obama's Oil Spill Commission presented their annual follow-up report Wednesday in Washington and expressed dismay that Congress has not acted to strengthen the Interior Department's oversight, both with funding and codified powers.
'Three years have passed since the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and Congress has yet to enact one piece of legilsation to make drilling safer,' said commission co-chairman Bob Graham, the former Democratic senator and governor from Florida.
But it's not like the bureau hasn't already expanded its power, even without Congress' help. They added hundreds of new, higher-paid regulators under former director Michael Bromwich and the Safety Rule implemented in 2012 extended new enforcement powers.
Graham's commission co-chairman, former Environmental Protection Agency boss Bill Reilly, said he's concerned about the slow pace of the audits. He said it's crucial for the industry-formed Center for Offshore Safety to get third-party auditors accredited quickly to meet the workload.
'This is an institution that we recommend be created, it was created, it's up and staffed and we have to hope that the role that it plays is significant and improves the quality of the audits and causes industry to take very seriously the new requirements that Interior has imposed upon them,' said Reilly, who served in former President George H.W. Bush's cabinet.
President Obama, meanwhile, wants to give the bureau $222 million next fiscal year, a 12.5 percent increase over last year.