A year to the day since the explosion that caused the country's biggest oil spill, the pervasive question is, what's changed?
It depends who you ask. Environmentalists have fiercely questioned the government's ability to compel offshore drillers to take new safety precautions. And queries about whether regulators have plugged all the holes that caused last year's disaster are met with answers akin to "it's complicated."
But over at the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service (rebranded after the spill as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, or BOEMRE), director Michael Bromwich is hitting back. Overhauling an agency takes a long time, he and several White House officials tell The Daily Beast, but the agency has changed, and is prepared for the new drilling season.
"We've done a lot. There has been a tremendous amount of ferment and change, issuance of regulations, issuance of new policies, carrying out reorganization," says Bromwich, in an exclusive interview with the Beast. Those things include new requirements for well casings, well design, and the containment capabilities of offshore platforms. The permitting process has also been beefed up, along with a drilling safety rule the Obama administration introduced in October.
The agency had been plagued by a host of embarrassing problems that came to light last summer, such as regulators' closeness with industry officials (some were alleged to have had sex or done drugs on company time). Also, oil-spill cleanup plans that companies filed with government sometimes turned out to be completely useless. But agency officials say that BOEMRE's largest problem was its lack of funding, which led to a loop of companies not taking the regulators seriously, and the agency, with scant respect from the White House or Congress, not being able to do its job.
“We are mindful of the fact that we’ll never completely fix things,” Bromwich says.
• The Oil Spill Killed My FatherThat's mostly changed. As part of the budget deal reached by House Republicans and the White House last week, Bromwich's budget was increased by $47 million (he asked for twice as much). "It's real money and we'll be able to hire at long last the people we need, but it's not enough," he says. "It's just the beginning of catching up with a deficit that's gone on for close to 30 years."
White House officials point to another quiet but meaningful change in how the regulators now operate. Before any leases are approved for new drilling, companies need to prove they have the capacity to cap a runaway well. The restriction wouldn't necessarily prevent a future spill, but would avoid another episode like last summer when cable news outlets ran live footage of flowing oil and concerns about seafood for more than three months.
Yet critics of the government's relationship with oil drillers have focused much of their ire on Congress for not raising the liability cap for oil drillers in case of an accident. Since the '90s, the cap has been $75 million for cleanup and $36,000 in civic liabilities each day that oil flows.
Since the 2010 fiasco, House Democrats introduced more than 80 bills aiming to curb the industry (two passed the chamber and zero made it through the Senate). "Seventy-five million is nothing," says David Roberts, an environmental-policy analyst with Grist. "It really undercuts the executive branch's efforts to do anything serious." Bromwich agrees: "You want fines to have a deterrent effect… and that can only happen if the fine level is significantly raised." The primary opponents of raising the cap have been senators in oil states, including Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, who argue that unlimited liability would cause small oil companies who couldn't afford the risk to dry up.
As BOEMRE points the finger at Congress, the agency knows it hasn't fully reformed itself just yet. In fact, Bromwich concedes that his job will always remain a moving target. "We are mindful of the fact that we'll never completely fix things," he says. "Here it's a dynamic institution that has to keep up and oversee a dynamic industry."
White House officials have expressed satisfaction with the amount of progress made at BOEMRE since last year. Press Secretary Jay Carney said last month that the president has taken the process of reform very seriously and is confident that new rules can help prevent future spills of the same magnitude.
Yet when asked whether Bromwich was confident that new regulations would eliminate the risk of a future accident like Deepwater Horizon spill, Bromwich paused, and then noted that really, you can never reduce the risk to zero, only get close to it. "My greatest fear is that people [in the government and industry] become complacent over time, and they lose the energy to keep searching for better ways to do things. Because if people start to lose focus and lose awareness of the fact that we need to keep improving, that's the biggest risk."
Daniel Stone is Newsweek's White House correspondent. He also covers national energy and environmental policy.