WASHINGTON – The Obama administration should sharply increase the number of offshore drilling inspectors, conduct more surprise inspections and stiffen penalties on companies found to violate federal rules on drilling, says a report by the Interior Department's top watchdog.
The report by the inspector general of the agency echoes one issued in September by a safety oversight board convened by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Both reports emphasized that inspectors from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement are badly outnumbered and in some cases poorly trained, without clear ethics rules.
Mary Kendall, the acting Interior inspector general, served on the safety board. She said the new report does not raise new issues but instead "expounds" on those issues and adds analysis. Both reports covered a time frame that ended in July.
Kendall said the drilling agency has begun important reforms but must continue to pursue a "culture of safety" that emphasizes protection of human life and prevention of environmental disasters above issuing offshore leases.
The drilling agency oversees offshore oil and gas drilling and renewable energy projects in federal waters. A separate agency was created in October to collect about $13 billion a year from oil and natural gas leases under federal control.
Salazar and other officials have said they hope to hire hundreds of new inspectors to supplement the 60 or so now responsible for about 3,500 drilling rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. He has pledged to spend $29 million to increase the number and training of offshore drilling inspectors, upgrade enforcement and take other steps to improve the beleaguered agency.
The drilling agency, formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, has long been plagued by staffing shortages and an overly cozy relationship with industry. It was renamed and reorganized after the BP oil spill.
Salazar said in a statement that the new report "further validates the urgency, direction and steps we have already taken toward building a transformed regulatory agency with the authorities, resources and support to provide strong and effective regulation and oversight."
Michael Bromwich, director of the ocean energy bureau, said the new report was outdated and failed to acknowledge reform efforts that have already begun.
In a letter to Salazar, Bromwich called that omission "curious" and misleading.
The new report "increases the risk that the world's view of BOEMRE will continue to be frozen in the past and will not keep up with the reform efforts that are currently in full swing," Bromwich said.
Bromwich, who took over the agency in June, said he and Salazar have initiated a host of reforms, including a first-ever ethics policy that bars inspectors from dealing with a company that employs a family member or personal friend. The new policy is intended to end cozy relationships with industry and slow the revolving door between government and the energy industry.
Officials are conducting a "full-court press" to find and hire qualified inspectors and are recruiting top petroleum engineers, Bromwich said.
"We are making swift progress," he said, "but our work is far from over."
(This version CORRECTS to show that a separate agency collects about $13 billion a year from oil and natural gas leases under federal control.)