Federal regulators have declared BP’s massive Atlantis offshore oil production rig safe, even though their investigation confirmed that it was operating without required engineering drawings.
The clearance of Atlantis is the second piece of good news for BP this week. It also owns the largest single interest in the first deepwater well to get a drilling permit under the government’s new safety rules. BP owns 46.5 percent of the Santiago well that Noble Energy operates. Noble got a permit Monday to resume work at Santiago.
Kenneth Abbott, the whistleblower who raised the issue two years ago, said the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement is covering up for its inadequate oversight of Atlantis when the Interior Department agency was still known as the Minerals Management Service.
“I’m disappointed but not really surprised,” Abbott said. “My whole experience with the agency has been that their first job is to protect themselves, and then the oil companies. They may have changed their name, but not their way of operating. I’m certainly not giving up. I entered this fight to help prevent another catastrophe in the Gulf and that’s still my mission.”
Abbott served as a BP contractor on Atlantis, a $2 billion oil and gas production rig 190 miles south of New Orleans, when he discovered the deficient documentation. He reported to a BP ombudsman in 2009 that the rig didn’t maintain required “as-built” drawings of the systems and structures on the rig.
The ombudsman, retired federal Judge Stanley Sporkin, later substantiated Abbott’s complaints. Abbott filed suit against BP, contending the lack of drawings made operations unsafe, and against MMS for failing to enforce its regulations. The idea behind his case got a jolt when President Barack Obama said the MMS had a “cozy relationship” with the industry it was supposed to regulate.
The environmental group Food and Water Watch joined in Abbott’s lawsuit in Houston, which alleges violations of the False Claims Act and is still awaiting a hearing.
After the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement released its findings Friday, Food and Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter blasted it for blowing a chance to show it had truly broken with its MMS past.
“The federal government dragged its feet on this investigation, and its findings are appalling — like a doctor’s note for a truant student,” she said. “They are a weak attempt to cover BP’s foul play. After all this time, the public deserves better.”
BP has consistently denied any safety problems at Atlantis, calling the drawings “a minor internal process issue,” and taking credit for self-reporting and rectifying the deficiencies.
Meanwhile, the new MMS, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, took up Abbott’s complaint, which drew increased national attention in the aftermath of BP’s Macondo well blowout last April.
On Friday, the bureau issued a report saying its investigators had reviewed 3,400 engineering drawings and interviewed 29 people connected with the rig operations and found several deficiencies in the documents. It also said BP failed to file documents with the government showing changes it had made to its production safety system. BP was cited with an infraction, but did not have to pay a penalty and has since provided the required drawings.
But the bureau’s director, Michael Bromwich, said that in spite of the document deficiencies, Abbott’s claims that workers were put at risk were “without merit.”
“As the report makes clear, although we found significant problems with the way BP labeled and maintained its engineering drawings and related documents, we found the most serious allegations to be without merit, including the suggestion that a lack of adequate documentation created a serious safety risk on the Atlantis facility,” Bromwich said. “We found no credible evidence to support that claim.”
The Atlantis rig operates in the Green Canyon 743 field, southwest of where the Deepwater Horizon exploration rig blew up last April. It taps into 16 different wells as it works to extract an estimated 635 million barrels of oil equivalent. BP Atlantis pulls about 190,000 barrels of oil equivalent out of the field each day, an amount nearly four times what was spewing out of the Macondo well when it was capped last July.