It is no secret that the Trump administration is pushing to vastly expand offshore oil and gas drilling. In early January Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a new five-year plan for offshore leasing that would potentially open up more than 90 percent of federal coastal waters to energy development and include the largest number of lease sales in the program’s history. From Alaska’s Chukchi Sea and the rugged shores of the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast, nothing was off the table. Zinke described it as one more step on the path to “achieving American Energy Dominance.”
Less attention has been paid to the Interior Department’s simultaneous efforts to loosen regulations governing offshore drilling, jeopardizing safety precautions put into place after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. One proposal under consideration would recombine the two bureaus responsible for managing offshore development and for enforcing environmental and safety regulations, respectively. The Obama administration separated those bureaus after the Deepwater blowout in order to eliminate conflicts of interest and strengthen industry oversight; recombining them was viewed as one way to reduce “burdens” on the energy industry, a Trump-administration priority. The possibility of merging the bureaus was first raised in early 2017 and, according to current and former DOI employees, was favored by Secretary Zinke, even before an analysis had been drafted. In February, Zinke said a final decision would be made in the next 90 days.
But the department has since gone silent on the matter. According to a draft of an internal document weighing the pros and cons of a merger, which was obtained by The Nation, any effort to recombine the bureaus—a complex bureaucratic undertaking—would have to take place before October 1, in order to develop a fiscal-year 2019 budget proposal.
“If there is a decision to proceed with reorganization, it needs to be made quickly,” the report states. “The sooner this work can get started, the smoother the transition will be.” The 14-page document, titled “Considerations for the Recombination of BOEM & BSEE,” lays out three possible scenarios for merging the bureaus—a “light,” “moderate,” and “heavy” option. The report argues that a single agency overseeing leasing and regulatory enforcement would have a more coherent management philosophy, would be easier to navigate for the industry, and would result in greater efficiency and moderate savings.
But the report also raises questions about the wisdom of doing so: Any sort of reorganization would be time-consuming and costly, according to the report’s authors. The head of BOEM’s Office of Policy, Regulation, and Analysis said in an e-mail obtained through a FOIA request that merging the bureaus would “further tax our resources as we continue to fulfill our mission.”
Two sources with knowledge of the plan raised questions about whether it is still a priority, but so far it has not been officially taken off the table. DOI did not respond to a request for comment.