WASHINGTON — Ties between offshore oil and gas companies and the agency that regulates them are so pervasive that a year after new ethics rules took effect, as many as a third of inspectors in some Gulf of Mexico offices have been disqualified to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Documents obtained by the Associated Press show that about 1 of every 5 employees of 109 involved in inspections in the gulf has been recused from some duties because of the risk of coming into contact with a family member or friend working for a company the inspector regulates. Ten people hired since mid August 2008 were barred for two years from performing work where they could be in a position of policing their previous employer — a company or contractor operating offshore.
In the Lafayette, La., office of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Enforcement and Regulation, nearly 35 percent of inspectors have been disqualified because a friend or relative works for a company they could interact with on the job. In Lake Charles, La., nearly 30 percent of inspectors held their last job with an oil and gas company, so they can't perform any duties involving their former employer for two years.
The numbers come from recusal forms under a new ethics policy instituted last year by the Obama administration to identify and prevent possible conflicts of interest before they arise.
Copies of the forms submitted by more than 100 inspectors, engineers and permit reviewers in five gulf coast offices were obtained by the AP under the Freedom of Information Act.
Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Enforcement and Regulation, says the forms quantify for the first time the extent of the bonds between the industry and the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service.
"The issue is not the conflicts themselves, which have existed for decades, but whether they are identified, addressed and managed," he said.
The number of disqualifications renewed calls by lawmakers for a stronger ethics policy to be put into law. "Our sense is the revolving door is still swinging too widely," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in an interview with the AP after he had reviewed the recusals.
Others say the recusals at least are a step in the right direction.
"The bad news is the oil industry still has motive and opportunity to try to control regulators," said Sara Gonzalez-Rothi, the legislative counsel for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. "But the good news is we wouldn't even be seeing some of these potential conflicts and recusals were it not for the reforms we pushed through in the past few years."
Nelson sponsored a bill that would have barred inspectors from working for the industry for two years after leaving the agency and required them to divest themselves of energy company stocks. Similar provisions are now part of a larger offshore drilling safety bill that is stalled in the Senate.