Surprise inspections of deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico dwindled to about three a year over the past decade, even as exploratory drilling far from shore increased, according to federal data analyzed by The Wall Street Journal.
And since 2004 federal authorities haven’t made a single surprise inspection on any of the 50 or so deepwater natural gas and oil production platforms in the Gulf, despite a law requiring periodic unannounced inspections. Like rigs, these semi-permanent structures also handle enormous amounts of oil and natural gas and are at risk for oil spills and worker fatalities.
This dearth of surprise visits to deepwater operations reduced the likelihood that inspectors would find individual safety violations, industry experts and inspectors say.
“You’re more apt to see what actual operations are with a surprise inspection,” said Perry Jennings, who heads the union local that represents federal offshore inspectors. “And if something’s going on that’s inappropriate, that’s the best time to catch it.”
Since the explosion of a BP PLC well in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20 that led to 11 deaths and the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, the Minerals Management Service, the agency that monitors offshore drilling, has been the subject of withering criticism for what many described as lax oversight and enforcement of regulations.
Regulators in the U.S. and around the globe routinely use surprise inspections in such operations as airplane maintenance and oil refining.
It’s impossible to know if a surprise inspection would have prevented the deadly explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon, the rig drilling the BP well, owned and operated by Transocean Ltd. The last unannounced visit was in October 2006.
However, inspectors can request records on the condition of the blowout preventer, a mammoth set of valves designed to shut down the well in an emergency. Some of the functions on the blowout preventer failed to work on the Deepwater Horizon.
Federal inspectors spent 62 hours aboard the rig in 2009 in announced visits. And an announced inspection this year about three weeks before the blowout lasted about two hours, but no citation was issued.
Still, unannounced inspections are seen as so critical to ensuring safe mining that Congress is considering a bill, drafted in the wake of a recent deadly West Virginia coal mine explosion, to make it a felony punishable by five years in prison to tip off an operator about an unannounced inspection.
Regulators with the Mine Safety and Health Administration said it was during a surprise inspection on Sept. 28 that they found safety violations at a West Virginia mine owned by Massey Energy Co. that could have caused an explosion. Massey, the owner of the separate West Virginia mine where 29 workers were killed after an April 5 explosion, said it fired three workers and suspended nine others over the recent inspection results.
“If you have zero unannounced visits and if the industry knows there will be no unannounced visits, that changes the incentive to be vigilant,” said Cary Coglianese, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in regulatory issues.
But officials with the MMS, recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, say surprise inspections were a low priority in deepwater energy operations.
“It was not what anybody wanted,” said Elmer P. Danenberger III, the longtime head of the agency’s offshore regulatory programs who retired in December. Mandatory annual inspections of 3,800 offshore facilities, responding to hurricane and collecting royalties were deemed more urgent, he said.Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar has promised extensive reforms in the agency and named a new director with a broad mandate to overhaul policies and enforcement practices.
A recent report said the agency’s policy about surprise inspections must be clarified. Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff promised “to determine the appropriate actions to take as we reorganize the agency.”
A Journal analysis of inspection data from 2000 through July 2010 showed an agency that had significantly reduced unannounced inspections in the Gulf’s deep waters, which the agency defines as 1,000 feet or deeper.
In 2000, about one in nine inspections of deepwater facilities were unannounced, according to the Journal’s analysis; by 2009, that rate had dropped to about one in 80. Meanwhile, the number of deepwater wells pumping oil and gas more than doubled over the decade to 602 from 256, according to federal data.
Some companies, such as Transocean, almost never had a helicopter carrying an inspector appear on the horizon to check on them. Surprise inspections accounted for less than 1% of total inspections for the Switzerland-based company between 2000 and 2010, the lowest among large drilling companies.
A Transocean spokesman said that drillers don’t determine “the number or frequency of government inspections.”
Inspectors arrive offshore via government-leased helicopters usually with a computer-generated random list of safety and antipollution components.
The inspector can issue a warning, or order the shutdown of a single component, or the entire facility.
The third option was a rare occurrence.
In fact, the government and inspectors have been faulted by internal investigators for being too close to oil companies, sometimes even allowing company employees to fill out inspection reports.
An April 2005 memo prohibited certain unannounced inspections. In the memo, Donald Howard, a former regional supervisor for MMS, required inspectors to give a 24-hour notice before inspecting many of the largest offshore platforms. He cited new security regulations imposed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
But the U.S. Coast Guard, which oversees these security rules, said it could find no justification for a 24-hour notice. “I haven’t found anything that requires an advanced notification to conduct an inspection,” says Lt. Commander Kevin Lynn, chief of the Coast Guard’s offshore facility security branch. “I am not exactly sure where that is coming from.”
Mr. Howard couldn’t be reached for comment. The agency fired him in 2007, and he later pleaded guilty to failing to disclose gifts from an offshore drilling company.
The policy was reiterated in 2007 by Joe Gordon, who subsequently left the agency to work for Chevron Corp. He declined requests for an interview.
Last month, an Interior Department Inspector General report found employees felt pressured to notify Royal Dutch Shell PLC before traveling to its offshore facilities. Shell spokesman Bill Tanner said: “If we did request additional notice, it was purely a safety matter in our mind.”
A separate Interior Department internal report released last month noted that individual district MMS offices seemed to have different interpretations of agency policy about when and if surprise inspections could be done or even what constituted one—something the department said needed to be clarified.
The report also noted some companies had “special notification arrangements.” The Interior Department declined to elaborate.
Oil and gas companies have generally favored scheduled inspections over unannounced ones. Allen Verret, executive director of the Offshore Operators Committee, an industry group, said scheduling inspections helps avoid congestion—and potential danger—if a helicopter appears unexpectedly.
Most inspectors, however, felt handcuffed by the arrangement. A recent survey by a federal safety oversight board convened by the Interior Department found that 90% of inspectors said there was a “critical need for more unannounced inspections.”