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Interior Mulls Remotely Monitoring Offshore Rigs

Remote monitoring of offshore oil and natural gas drilling projects is being considered by the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM), Michael Bromwich said Monday.

Speaking on the opening day of the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, the BOEM chief said his agency is studying remote monitoring to determine whether regulators would be able to oversee offshore drilling rig activities from onshore monitoring centers, which is already being done by many producers who operate in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

This week Bromwich and his team plan to visit control centers in Houston and New Orleans run by Shell Oil Co., Chevron Corp., Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and others "to learn more about the types of activities that can be monitored from shore, as well as the equipment, personnel and procedures involved in remote monitoring."

Depending on the results of the review and "subsequent discussions, remote monitoring may prove to be a very useful tool for making offshore regulation more effective and efficient," he said.

If the federal monitoring plan moves forward, it would be conducted in conjunction with in-person inspections by BOEM officials.

More oversight also is being planned for offshore drilling contractors and supply companies, Bromwich told the crowd.

The idea to expand BOEM's reach beyond producer oversight had been considered in the past, but Bromwich said he had been unsure whether expanded authority would require approval by Congress.

According to the Department of Interior's internal legal review, congressional action isn't necessary because BOEM already was given "broad legal authority over all activities relating to offshore leases, whether it is engaged in by lessees, operators or contractors...

"We can exercise such authority as we deem appropriate."

Historically the former Minerals Management Service had focused its oversight on leaseholders and operators. The U.S. Coast Guard and other federal agencies separately regulate entities such as the drilling platforms, rigs and their owners. The "traditional system," said Bromwich, "preserved clarity and singular responsibility of the operator."

However, "I'm convinced that we can fully preserve the principle of holding operators fully responsible -- and in most cases solely responsible -- without sacrificing the ability to pursue regulator actions against contractors for serious violations of agency rules and regulations."

The Obama administration plans to be "careful and measured in extending our regulatory authority to contractors."

The Interior Department arm has come under scrutiny to beef up its offshore inspection program following last year's Macondo well blowout.

To that end, BOEM is establishing a National Offshore Training Center to "develop national training strategies and programs to maintain and improve the technical capabilities of offshore inspections and compliance personnel throughout the bureau," said Bromwich.

"In the past, our inspectors have learned how to do their jobs through a combination of on-the-job training and industry-sponsored courses aimed at teaching how certain types of equipment function...The agency has never had a training center dedicated to training inspectors on how to do their jobs. Now we will."

Also coming soon: the recommended procedures to submit offshore drilling permit applications.

The new procedures, which would be "adopted on a voluntary basis," would guide offshore operators in complying with the updated regulations imposed since last year's oil spill.

"The guiding principles will offer greater clarity, transparency and consistency in the permitting process," Bromwich said.

For operators, the new guidelines would "assist them in complying with our new regulations," and for BOEM, the checklist would "assist our staff in processing applications for permits to drill more rapidly."

Guidance has been issued in the past year to clarify new rules imposed post-Macondo. However, the nearly completed checklist would "clearly" outline the components that operators would need to have in their drilling permit applications to assure approval.

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