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Interior Audit Says BSEE Performing Better, but Inconsistencies Found

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), charged with overseeing offshore drilling for the Department of Interior, has no standardized procedures in place for reviewing permits nor a program to streamline the process, according to an internal audit.

A report by Interior's inspector general said the four-year-old agency has made a lot of positive changes, particularly after being hit with the 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM). However, more work is required. The deepwater blowout led to a number of changes in safety procedures, and the BSEE has asked for outside guidance as well (see Daily GPI, June 6; Oct. 28, 2013).

"BSEE has made progress in the short years of its existence," auditors said. The addition of more staff has offered "opportunities for greater in-depth analysis" for proposed drilling. Permit approvals declined in 2010 and 2011, compared to 2009 -- because of the Macondo blowout and moratorium -- but drillers have returned to the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), said the report.

"Since 2012, the number of permit approvals has increased above the 2009 level and the Gulf of Mexico Region has also taken measures to improve decision-making."

What is challenging are the inconsistencies across the many district and regional headquarters, said Deputy Inspector General Mary L. Kendall.

"BSEE conducts drilling permit activities with limited oversight from its headquarters office in Washington, DC," she wrote. "This creates policy inconsistencies among regions as each region developed its own policies without headquarters' review or developed its own procedures in the absence of preexisting headquarters policies."

BSEE and sister agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, were created after the former Minerals Management Service was disbanded. BSEE primarily is tasked with reviewing drilling permit applications and spill response plans. It also considers requests to modify existing permits.

BSEE employees mostly conduct their scientific and technical analyses from regional and district offices, ensuring that the permit reviews are driven by engineering and science, and not by Washington, DC, political influence, the report said.

BSEE has been making over the permitting process for several years in response to new safety procedures. However, the audit found that BSEE's ability to ensure consistency across all of the offices remains limited.

For example, electronic records for permits in the GOM indicate that "reviews had not always been completed or documented." Checklists that were supposed to be used to show that drilling permits had been vetted in some cases were not generated. Permit modification requests arriving after hours were not in every case documented.

"Since permit reviews are not consistently documented either manually or electronically, we found it difficult to determine what an engineer had reviewed as part of the permit approval process," the auditors said. "This perpetuates a program-wide absence of consistency and standardization. It also may leave the government less capable of explaining why permits were issued or other actions taken."

BSEE said it plans to update a requirement in its electronic permitting system that would prevent a permit from being approved unless all documentation was deemed to be complete.

The GOM region, the largest area overseen by the BSEE, now is developing ePermits as part of BSEE's entire eWell system to reduce the time needed to permit well operations.

However, the auditors said the systems should be available to track permits for wells also to be permitted in Alaska and Pacific waters, not only the GOM. The electronic permitting systems should be coordinated to better document all of the agency's permitting.

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