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Blowup Over The Blowout


By Ben Geman (@ben_geman) and Jason Plautz (@jason_plautz)


Two former top offshore-drilling regulators are at odds over whether drilling has gotten much safer since the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico almost four years ago.

"We would never have imagined so little action would be taken to prevent something like this from happening again. But, four years later, the Obama administration still has not taken key steps recommended by its experts and experts it commissioned to increase drilling safety," states a New York Times op-ed coauthored by Liz Birnbaum.

"As a result, we are on a course to repeat our mistakes," adds Birnbaum, who was let go as head of the Interior Department's offshore agency, formerly called the Minerals Management Service, a few weeks after the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon blowout and rig explosion.


The accident claimed 11 lives and touched off a months-long oil spill that dumped more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Birnbaum's op-ed credits regulators with some improvements, but it focuses in part on delayed plans to set new federal standards for subsea "blowout preventers," a fail-safe device aimed at halting runaway wells that failed to halt the BP disaster. The rules have yet to be proposed.

"It's unfathomable that the administration has failed to act on the findings of the December 2011 report of the National Academy of Engineering, which gave us some very bad news about Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer," states the op-ed coauthored by Jacqueline Savitz of the environmental group Oceana.

But Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department official who took over and reorganized Interior's offshore oversight branch after Birnbaum left, is disputing the op-ed. He said in a statement Thursday that the Times op-ed gives "short shrift to the enormous strides that were made in the immediate aftermath of the oil spill."


"Two major rules were enacted and implemented that have undeniably made offshore drilling safer than ever before. The enormous organizational changes, barely referred to in the piece, eliminated the conflicts of interest that plagued offshore drilling oversight for years," writes Bromwich, who stepped down in late 2011 and like Birnbaum is now a consultant in private practice.

"Yes, there is always the risk of another offshore blowout, although that risk has been substantially reduced," adds Bromwich, who oversaw the reorganizing of the old MMS into what's now a pair of agencies: The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (and royalty collections were moved to another part of Interior entirely).

Bromwich allows that "government could have moved faster and more forcefully in the last couple of years in implementing the many recommendations made by various organizations, especially on blowout preventers," but adds: But to suggest that things are largely unchanged from the time of Deepwater Horizon is neither fair nor accurate."

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Ben Geman


BLOWUP OVER THE BLOWOUT, PART II. The Coast Guard is annoyed with BP's framing of its continuing work in response to the months-long 2010 oil spill.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports: "The Coast Guard has scaled back its clean-up response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but that scale-back is not as extensive as BP indicated in a news release issued Tuesday, an irritated Capt. Thomas Sparks told the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority on Wednesday."

BLOWUP AFTER THE BLOWOUT, PART III. The Securities and Exchange Commission has accused a veteran BP employee of engaging in insider trading in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Keith Seilhan agreed to a settlement of more than $224,000 over claims that he used his knowledge of the situation to sell off a $1 million portfolio of BP securities. (Sarah N. Lynch, Reuters)

VA. COURT SIDES WITH UNIVERSITY OVER GLOBAL-WARMING CASE. In the latest development in the legal spat over climate scientist Michael Mann's research, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the professor's unpublished work from his time at the University of Virginia was exempt from the state's Freedom of Information Act. State delegate Robert Marshall and the American Tradition Institute filed a FOIA request for Mann's work in 2011, but the university withheld some 12,000 documents, maintaining that they were proprietary. (Tom Jackman, Washington Post)

WASHINGTON GOVERNOR ENLISTS COAL LOBBYIST. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, announced Wednesday that he had hired Matt Steuerwalt to head his policy office. Steuerwalt joins the administration after lobbying for the firm Strategies 360 representing Canadian coal firm TransAlta and having previously worked for former Gov. Christine Gregoire. (Joel Connelly, Seattle Post Intelligencer)

MONIZ, McCARTHY WARMING UP. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz will mark Earth Day on Tuesday by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park, home of McCarthy's beloved Boston Red Sox. McCarthy will also appear on The Daily Show on Monday.

WHITE HOUSE BETS BIG ON SOLAR. The Energy Department announced today it is awarding $15 million to communities to develop long-term plans for solar-power installations, part of the administration's goal to double the nation's renewable capacity again by 2020.

BRAZIL OFFERING PUBLICITY FOR CARBON CREDITS. In its bid to host a carbon-neutral World Cup this summer, Brazil said it wants holders of U.N.-backed carbon-emission credits to exchange them for publicity during the event. The country does not plan to purchase any of its own offsets. (Marcelo Teixeira, Reuters)

STATES EYEING EACH OTHER ON FRACKING RULES. As states contend with the new challenges of the natural-gas boom, they're using each other for guidance on rules, taxes, and government policies. But some groups think a regional approach that ignores state borders might have more benefits (Jason Plautz, National Journal)

LOWE'S SETTLES OVER LEAD POLLUTION. Home-improvement chain Lowe's will pay $500,000 and institute a company-wide compliance policy as part of a settlement with EPA and the Justice Department over violations of the lead renovation, repair, and repainting rule. The settlement comes after violations of improper record-keeping and procedures by Lowe's contractors doing renovations at private homes.


IS PROTECTING THE GRID A MATTER OF NATIONAL SECURITY? How much should protecting the electric grid weigh in considerations of national security?

"Not only does electricity power our economy, it also runs our homes, offices, and industries; enables communications and medical services; powers computers, electric technologies, smart phones, and the Internet; and runs various forms of transportation. Moreover, while the electric-power industry is itself a critical infrastructure sector, the product that our industry provides is vital to other critical sectors and essential services." --Tom Kuhn, president, Edison Electric Institute

Read the full responses from National Journal's Energy Insiders


UKRAINE DISCUSSION. Johns Hopkins University hosts a discussion titled "Europe's Energy Future, Russia, Ukraine: A Comedy of Errors?"

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