In June 2010, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, President Obama put Michael Bromwich in charge of reforming the Interior Department’s offshore oil and gas programs. Yet, the two men have met only once, in September 2010, shortly before the department lifted the moratorium it had placed on issuing deepwater drilling permits. “I’ve been given a remarkably free hand in running this agency,” says Bromwich, who is leaving as director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management at year’s end. (He says he doesn’t know what he’s doing next.) In an interview with National Journal at the Interior Department, Bromwich reflects on the last 18 months. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Your expertise is not in energy and environmental issues. How was this job different from past positions you’ve held, including inspector general of the Justice Department?
BROMWICH [With] the bulk of what I’ve had to do, you have not needed to have a wealth of specific technical information about offshore drilling. The important challenges that I faced in coming in here at the end of June of 2010 were ones of leadership and direction—of being able to take the reins of a troubled organization, being able to help lift it up, move it forward, and take care of the many significant tasks that were assigned to the agency.
There were plenty of technically smart people in the agency who could provide me technical information when I needed it. That’s not what the director of an agency like this needs to have, first and foremost. Does it hurt? No. Does it help? Marginal amount. But you can get that from people lower down in the agency.
NJ You had some difficult relationships with a few oil-state Republicans, especially Rep. Jeffrey Landry and Sen. David Vitter, both from Louisiana.
BROMWICH I understand that they feel the need to represent their constituents in an aggressive and sometimes highly rhetorical way. There are fantasies some people in the industry and some politicians have about who exercises control over what—everything ranging from the White House telling me what to do, which has never happened, to me telling the permitting people what to do and not to do, which has never happened. Some of the Gulf State representatives would be shocked about how little communication there has been, for example, between the White House and me. I have not talked to anyone in the White House for six months.
NJ What was the hardest part about this job?
BROMWICH The hardest part was dealing with the external pressures and the external focus on the agency from Day One. That continued for a longer period of time than I expected it. I thought once the well was capped, once the deepwater-drilling moratorium was over, once deepwater wells began to be permitted again—which was in February—that we wouldn’t be as much of an interest to you and your colleagues and the Congress and the outside world. That just turned out not to be true. We were not able to dig into some of the internal issues as we would have if we didn’t have the incredible array and continuing stream of external things to respond to: 15 congressional hearings, 19 external speeches.
NJ Why so much external pressure?
BROMWICH The companies—which were being harmed by the moratorium and the fact that we were processing plans and permits at a slower pace than we had historically—have a loud public voice. People pay attention to them. They make contributions to congressmen. They have very vocal trade associations. That’s why there continued to be a steady drumbeat of information coming out, much of it critical about what we were doing. And that explains the sustained attention that our operations got.
NJ What advice would you give to your successor, Rear Adm. James Watson?
BROMWICH Don’t worry about the pressures you’re getting from the external world, whether they be from trade associations or politicians or operators. Just do what you think is the right thing to do. Make decisions that you can justify to yourself and that you can justify to the outside world.
NJ What would you do differently?
BROMWICH What I wish I had had time to do was spend more time bringing in a couple of additional senior staff people, because the crushing burdens of this office fell on an incredibly small number of people.
NJ While your focus has been on offshore oil and gas production, your agency also regulates offshore renewable energy, such as wind.
BROMWICH I would say a generous estimate of how much time I spent on offshore-renewable issues is 2 percent. I regret that. I think there are some interesting and some promising things that can be done in terms of offshore renewables, but I did not have the luxury of time to get as involved in those issues as I would have liked.
This article appears in the December 10, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.