Public Still Missing in Offshore Drilling Oversight

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Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

I became particularly interested in the months after the disaster on the ways that public disclosure support effective government oversight, especially since this situation was caused by both mechanical and regulatory failures.

Disclosure often functions as far more than a supplement to regulatory control; transparency requirements form the backbone of many of our public protections. As I pointed out last June, public disclosure empowers public regulation.

A year on, though, and it looks like the old MMS (now BOEMRE) is still overlooking public disclosure.

I wrote last June about the various reports that make up regulation of offshore drilling — requirements that drillers must disclose environmental, economic, or ecological impact of their activities. Many of these reports are required to be publicly available, but only if you visit a field office.

If these reports were posted online, where someone might actually look at them, then the reporting would suddenly become far more forceful, relevant, and grow some teeth. BOEMRE’s website has sections devoted to their response to last year’s disaster, but there’s little new information being disclosed from the entities they are supposed to regulate. Memos like this explain newly strengthened requirements to industry actors, but the public seems to have been egregiously left out of BOEMRE’s understanding of their regulatory function.

This is actually a case where the President’s leadership can help enormously. This January, the White House released a new Presidential Memo on Regulatory Compliance Data. The public reports at the heart of BOEMRE’s purpose are exactly the kind of information that the White House is instructing agencies to release better.

The memo says:

Sound regulatory enforcement promotes the welfare of Americans in many ways, by increasing public safety, improving working conditions, and protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink. Consistent regulatory enforcement also levels the playing field among regulated entities, ensuring that those that fail to comply with the law do not have an unfair advantage over their law-abiding competitors. Greater agency disclosure of compliance and enforcement data will provide Americans with information they need to make informed decisions. Such disclosure can lead the Government to hold itself more accountable, encouraging agencies to identify and address enforcement gaps.

First, agencies with broad regulatory compliance and administrative enforcement responsibilities, within 120 days of this memorandum, to the extent feasible and permitted by law, shall develop plans to make public information concerning their regulatory compliance and enforcement activities accessible, downloadable, and searchable online.

What could fit this description better than the documents that the extractive industry is required to prepare in order to avoid exactly the kind of disaster we watched happen a year ago? They’re already available for public inspection, but just not posted online.

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