Members of President Barack Obama’s Oil Spill Commission said this week that they were shocked to learn during their months of investigation that federal drilling rig inspectors generally know little or nothing about the process of safely lining and sealing an offshore oil well.
Now, with a revamped federal regulatory agency promising to add dozens of new employees to exercise more robust control over offshore drilling, the commission wonders if the new front-line inspectors will understand the issues that played critical roles in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 workers and fouled the Gulf of Mexico for months.
Commission co-chairman William Reilly said Monday that he was alarmed to see interviews and online surveys conducted by the Interior Department’s inspector general in which rig inspectors professed ignorance about the cementing process that seals a well off from dangerous bulges of natural gas, or about devices like centralizers installed to help ensure a good seal.
“When we asked about cementing and centralizers, they said very freely, ‘We don’t know about that stuff; we have to trust the companies,'” Reilly said. “All they get is on-the-job training. It really is fairly startling, considering how sophisticated the industry has become. And the inspectors themselves are quite aware of their needs.”
Cementing and centralizers have become important issues in the Deepwater Horizon investigation. The failure of cement seals in BP’s well apparently let in gas, which blew out the top of the well and destroyed the rig. Marine Board investigators also have focused on BP’s decisions to save time and money with fewer centralizers, which would have reduced the risk of gas flowing into the well bore.
Asked about his inspectors’ lack of knowledge about underwater drilling operations, Michael Bromwich, head of the Interior Department’s revamped offshore regulatory agency, acknowledged that training is an issue. He said his Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement wants to address the problem as it seeks to add 200 new inspectors, engineers and environmental scientists to its ranks.
“BOEMRE currently does not have a formal training and certification program for its inspectors, but up until this point has relied upon on-the-job training from more experienced inspectors,” Bromwich said. “One of the things that we are looking at implementing is a strong bureau-wide certification or accreditation program for inspectors to ensure that our inspectors are given the proper fundamental knowledge and maintain proficiency with current systems and operations.”
Findings due Nov. 8
That training plan is significant for the Oil Spill Commission, appointed by Obama on May 21. The commission is planning to report its findings on what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon at hearings Nov. 8. Members took special interest in a report by the Interior Department’s Safety Oversight Board in September, which recommended that inspectors should be on rigs to observe critical operations first-hand “to the greatest extent practicable.”
Such on-site viewing was never part of the rig inspector’s job under the now-dissolved Minerals Management Service. Instead, MMS engineers would approve or reject permits for certain key drilling activities and review weekly printed reports from the rig to make sure the operator was complying with regulations.
New safety rules imposed by BOEMRE last month are the first to require federal engineers to review cementing plans to ensure they follow best industry practices. Under MMS, there were no federal regulations governing specific cementing procedures. Federal regulations did require MMS to approve major changes to well design and equipment and to check for certain tests and certifications of well-control equipment, such as blowout preventers.
Inspectors announced visits
The effectiveness of those existing rules was called into question when Frank Patton, the MMS official who approved the Deepwater Horizon drilling permits, testified before an accident investigation panel in May that he wasn’t aware of some of those critical blowout preventer requirements.
The Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer, which sat on the well head 5,000 feet under the sea, didn’t work properly the night of April 20 and failed to close off the gushing well.
As for the MMS inspectors who actually visited the rigs once a month, they were not required to view any drilling operations, and inspectors told the inspector general’s surveyors that rig crews often chose to stop key work while the inspectors were visiting. What’s more, they rarely made unannounced visits, inspectors said in the survey.
Once aboard, inspectors would simply review a checklist of federal regulations and look at mechanical systems and other equipment on the rig to make sure they were in compliance.