Ousted agency chief avoided, irked Obama admin officials

By Sam Pearson | 07/21/2015 01:11 PM EDT

In early 2011, Obama administration drilling "czar" Michael Bromwich wanted to talk to the head of the Chemical Safety Board. He accused the chemical agency of dragging its heels on a plan to test equipment whose failure had caused the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

But then-CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso had been avoiding him.

"I understand that you were unwilling to have a one-on-one conversation with me about this issue," Bromwich wrote to Moure-Eraso in a sharply worded email. "I find this very disappointing, and it simply ensures further delay."


Moure-Eraso told his top staffers at the time that he didn’t "want to upset [Bromwich] after denying his one-on-one. But I urgently need to see a man about a dog … this evening," according to emails recently obtained by Greenwire.

The conflict with Bromwich is just one example of how the ex-chairman of the CSB — who resigned this year under pressure from the White House — ruffled feathers during his five-year tenure at the agency, according to interviews and emails from a nongovernmental email account used by Moure-Eraso. A House watchdog committee has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether he lied to Congress about his use of personal emails to conduct business (Greenwire, July 8).

Moure-Eraso’s strained relationships with other agencies left him with few allies when a bipartisan chorus of lawmakers pushed for his ouster, and has left CSB’s new interim leadership with the task of patching up frayed bonds. Vanessa Sutherland, President Obama’s nominee to lead the board, has vowed to lawmakers that she intends to run the agency far differently than her predecessor (Greenwire, April 22).

The conflict between Moure-Eraso and Bromwich occurred in February 2011, several months after oil stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Several federal agencies were trying to test a key part that triggered the disaster.

Bromwich — then the director of the branch of the Interior Department with oversight of offshore energy production — was pushing to move forward with a test of the oil well’s blowout preventer to determine how it failed and whether it was the fault of Cameron, the Houston-based company that manufactured the part.

At the time, Cameron was facing civil damages in a federal lawsuit in which it was named along with BP PLC, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and contractor Halliburton Co., although U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier dropped Cameron from the suit in 2013.

But CSB was holding things up, according to Bromwich.

To the chagrin of the oil spill czar, the CSB refused to sign off on a multiagency plan to allow for Cameron personnel to perform the test under close supervision by government employees, who would also videotape it, according to emails from a nongovernmental email account used by Moure-Eraso and obtained under the Massachusetts Public Records Law.

CSB officials had told Moure-Eraso they feared Cameron would manipulate the results, although Bromwich and others thought that was unlikely.

Cameron didn’t want to proceed without CSB’s agreement "because of its concerns about adverse publicity," Bromwich wrote. Cameron didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

In an email to Moure-Eraso, Bromwich wrote that the resulting delay was "unacceptable" and demanded that the CSB leader speak with him or have someone explain the agency’s stance by the end of the day.

As CSB refused to sign off on the testing plan, Cameron spent several days "working through a plan to substitute NASA technicians" to perform the test, rather than company officials, according to emails. NASA contributed an engineering expert to the interagency group investigating the cause of the spill but didn’t work on the investigation itself, spokesman J.D. Harrington said.

Three-and-a-half years later, CSB put out its own report finding that the blowout preventer contained a defective blind shear ram — and that the same defect may be present at blowout preventers at hundreds of other well sites, in a finding that went beyond the claims of other agencies (EnergyWire, June 10, 2014).

The test of the blowout preventer, a complex process, had been proceeding according to plan, Bromwich said in an interview, "until the Chemical Safety Board got involved." CSB "seemed to have their own agenda, which was different from everybody else," he added.

Moure-Eraso told Greenwire the agency’s actions were appropriate to ensure the integrity of the process.

CSB is an independent agency charged with conducting its own investigations and issuing recommendations. It lacks the power to issue fines or citations, but its suggestions are monitored closely by industry, regulators and labor groups.

‘It would be very helpful to hear from you’

That wasn’t the only instance of coordination problems under Moure-Eraso’s leadership.

They flared again when Bromwich’s successor, who led what was by then known as the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, tried to work with CSB nearly two years later on a different offshore investigation.

Rear Adm. Jim Watson, the head of BSEE, had trouble reaching Moure-Eraso as he led an investigation into a fatal explosion at the West Delta 32 platform in 2012, records show.

"I’m sorry to have missed you by telephone and am hoping this email will reach you," Watson wrote. "I am very concerned that our organizations are not coordinating efforts following the fire with loss of life on West Delta Platform 32 last Friday."

Three workers were killed when the platform, operated by Black Elk Energy, exploded on Nov. 16, 2012.

Watson wrote that his agency thought CSB would keep his agency apprised of its actions to avoid conflicting communications but that CSB had since issued subpoenas to Black Elk and that a CSB official had been quoted about the possible cause of the fire. Those actions weren’t coordinated with BSEE, "which predictably has caused confusion," Watson wrote.

"Needless to say, it would be very helpful to hear from you about this matter," he wrote.

CSB ultimately didn’t complete a report on the Black Elk explosion. BSEE later issued 41 citations to Black Elk for safety violations it said led to the incident (Greenwire, Nov. 14, 2013). Black Elk did not face criminal charges from the incident, and the company sold most of its offshore energy assets to Renaissance Offshore LLC for nearly $150 million last year.

Watson, who’s now the president of the Americas Division of the American Bureau of Shipping, a ship classification organization, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story nor did Black Elk representatives.

‘Imperious’ leadership

CSB’s management problems cause real challenges that affect whether enforcement agencies can hold violators accountable, said Ellen Widess, who led California’s workplace safety agency during the investigation of a 2012 fire at Chevron Corp.’s Richmond, Calif., refinery.

In the Richmond investigation, CSB’s technical expertise in areas like metallurgy proved invaluable, but its leaders could be "imperious" and hard to reach, Widess said.

Widess said she recalled reading CSB staff’s comments on the investigation in the press that even she was not apprised of. Those disclosures, many of which she said likely occurred without the knowledge of the full board, "could jeopardize our really getting to the bottom of the cause of the explosion," she said.

Running the investigation properly was crucial because deep-pocketed Chevron was sure to use all its resources to dispute the findings, Widess said.

Moure-Eraso, however, said CSB maintained a "very professional" relationship with Cal/OSHA, a division of the state Department of Industrial Relations, during the Richmond investigation, describing his dealings with California regulators as "excellent relationships."