Re-named offshore energy agency urged to publish production data

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The scandal-wracked Minerals Management Services changed its name to Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) as part of a promised wave of reforms, but consumer advocacy groups say more transparency is what is really needed at the offshore energy agency.

The agency should provide online access to more data about crude oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico and other offshore areas, as well as energy companies’ royalty payments to the U.S. government.

“The kind of data we want to see is on production numbers, so we can have better calculations to ensure that royalties are collected accurately,” said Mandy Smithberger, an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

“They’re taking some good steps in the right direction,” Smithberger said, referring to BOEMRE inspection reports which are newly available online. “But if you don’t see real transparency as part of that [reform] process, it’s going to be hard to reform.”

Users can navigate through the website now to find district investigation reports through May 21, and panel investigation reports through February. Civil and criminal penalty reports are also available through the second quarter of 2010.

The agency was reorganized by the Obama administration after a stunning series of reports by the Interior Department’s inspector general in late 2008 detailed corruption and wrongdoing. The watchdog said some agency officials had sex with oil industry employees, and that one-third of government officials overseeing the royalty-in-kind program were taking bribes or gifts.

Another advocacy group, the Southern Environmental Law Center, says BOEMRE is still too friendly with the industry it regulates. The center filed a lawsuit accusing BOEMRE of failing to perform required environmental reviews to determine potential risks before approving deepwater exploration and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. “Everything gets rubberstamped for the environmental review process and we don’t see it,” said Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney at the center.

The center has also tried for weeks to get from BOEMRE a copy of an exploration plan filed by BP for the Deepwater Horizon, the drilling rig that exploded off the coast of Louisiana in April, causing the worst U.S. oil spill.

Wannamaker asserts that BOEMRE needs deeper changes than just a new name, such as giving the Environmental Protection Agency or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the primary responsibility for environmental reviews and permitting for offshore drilling.

The reorganization now underway at BOEMRE is divvying up responsibilities so that various units within the agency can focus on their mission “without the distraction of the appearance of conflicting purposes,” BOEMRE said.

“As part of that reorganization, certainly the agency's website as well as the agency's ability to enhance transparency is being considered,” Blossom Robinson, a BOEMRE spokeswoman, told the Center in an e-mail. “This will involve separating the relevant information components and ensuring the information is available in the most efficient format.”

Earlier this month, a team of senior Interior Department officials and the department’s inspector general recommended steps for stricter permitting, inspections, and enforcement at the agency which collects more than $13 billion annually in fees from energy companies.

ABOUT THE DATA

What: Inspection reports, oil and natural gas production details, penalties paid.

Where: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Availability: District investigation reports are available from 2003 through May 2010; penalties paid by energy companies are available in chart format from 1997 through this year.

Usability: Documents in PDF format; no consolidated search mechanism available.

Send your tips on government data sets that you think should be made more accessible or user-friendly to datamine@publicintegrity.org. You can also message us on Twitter or discuss the project on our Facebook page. We’re eager to hear what you turn up — full credit and links will be provided to individuals whose suggestions we use in our series.

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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