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Government to conduct surprise oil rig inspections
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. offshore drilling agency will begin conducting surprise inspections on oil rigs as part of a new aggressive enforcement effort adopted by the Obama administration since the BP oil spill, the agency's head said on Thursday.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, had stopped performing unannounced rig inspections recently because of concerns about national security.
But the head of the bureau, Michael Bromwich, said he saw no legitimate reason to let oil companies know about planned inspections as much as two days in advance.
"I think unannounced inspections should and must play a significant role in an integrated inspections policy," Bromwich told the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit.
The department will provide companies some notice about inspections but not a full day ahead of the inspection, Bromwich said.
Bromwich, who was brought in this summer to reform a scandal-ridden bureau marred by the massive BP spill, said the unannounced inspections are part of the bureau's tough new stance on enforcement.
Bromwich said he has let the inspectors know that they are authorized "to be as aggressive as they responsibly can be."
An investigative team formed by Bromwich within the agency will also help spearhead the agency's efforts to forcefully go after oil companies that violate the law.
Critics have charged the government's drilling regulator has been too close to the industry it is supposed to oversee.
Bromwich has instituted new ethics rules barring employees from inspecting rigs operated by companies they have worked for in the past two years.
The bureau has also imposed stringent new safety rules aimed at preventing another drilling accident like the one at BP's Macondo well, pouring millions of barrels of oil into Gulf of Mexico.
The new regulations opened the door for Interior to lift its months-long deepwater drilling moratorium this week, but Bromwich said no decisions have been made on when the bureau will hold its next lease sales.
"We've got a complicated set of factors to take into account and to weigh," Bromwich said. "Right now we're really focused on implementing these new rules."
The department canceled planned lease sales off the coast of Virginia and in the western Gulf of Mexico following the BP accident.
Bromwich also said it was unclear exactly when the department would begin approving new deepwater permits for existing leaseholders, although he hopes some permits will be green lighted by the end of the year.
Shallow water drillers have complained that delays in the permitting process have amounted to a de facto moratorium on drilling.
Additional Interior employees have been assigned to the Gulf office to help speed up the permitting process, Bromwich said.
(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Bernard Orr)
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