Increase in inspectors hasn't kept pace with boom in offshore U.S. oil rigs and projects

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010; A01

Over the past quarter-century, oil companies have pushed the frontiers of offshore drilling, sharply stepping up the number of deep-water rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, although the number of exploration rigs soared and the number of deep-water oil-producing projects grew more than tenfold from 1988 to 2008, the number of federal inspectors working for the Minerals Management Service has increased only 13 percent since 1985.

That brings the number of inspectors for the federal waters of the entire Gulf of Mexico to 62 -- only seven more than in 1985. To visit deep-water rigs, they often make two-hour helicopter rides from shore. The same inspectors also examine dozens of rigs and thousands of production platforms in shallow water.

The shortage -- and quality -- of manpower at the MMS is coming under scrutiny as Congress looks at the causes of the oil spill that started in the gulf with the April 20 blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.

One key question is whether the agency could carry out the required minimum once-a-month inspections or do a thorough job in an increasingly complex area. Investigators are also looking at whether applications for changes in the well design received only cursory reviews, including one that was approved seven minutes after being filed.

"It would seem that we're spreading these inspectors pretty thin, given the increasing complexity of these rigs and the distances they have to travel," said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), whose panel is examining MMS oversight of offshore drilling. "What's happened here at Deepwater Horizon is a perfect example of how there is very little room for error when it comes to the safety of these oil rigs."

On Tuesday the Obama administration ordered companies working in shallower waters to hire outside inspection firms to do what it thinks its own agency has failed to do. Drillers already use outside firms to check rigs for seaworthiness, which is also the subject of Coast Guard inspections. But it is unclear whether those outside firms will be independent while being paid by the companies they inspect.

"The use of third parties seems to underscore a lack of confidence in the MMS," said a senior executive at a leading drilling rig company who asked for anonymity to protect his relationship with federal authorities. "And who is the third party? What are the standards of neutrality and independence, and are we subcontracting independent regulatory review?"

Even the agency, which has been criticized for being too cozy with the oil industry, has said that it was overwhelmed. By this year, the number of drilling rigs in deep water had climbed to more than 30 and the number of deep-water production platforms to 141.

Two-and-a-half months before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the MMS told Congress that both the agency and the oil and gas industry faced "significant engineering, logistical and financial challenges" given the rapid expansion of deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

"As activities continue to move into deeper waters, MMS will need to ensure that exploration and development is conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner while regulating cutting edge technology in distant areas under increasingly difficult conditions," the agency wrote in its Budget Justifications and Performance Information Fiscal Year 2011, which it submitted to Congress on Feb. 1.

The Obama administration asked for six additional inspectors as part of its 2011 budget request but has not received the $900,000 it would take to pay for such an expansion.

The agency has a sign on its Web site: Help wanted. The qualifications: a year or more of work experience in the field, willingness to work for less than half of what private industry would pay, and the ability to bend and stoop and climb tall ladders.

Some lawmakers say that isn't enough training for the people who stand between the powerful oil industry and ecological catastrophes such as the one now afflicting the Gulf of Mexico.

Those applying for MMS inspection jobs, or petroleum engineering technicians, are only required to have a high school degree and some experience in the oil and gas industry. Federal mine inspectors undergo standardized training at the government's Mine Health and Safety Academy, but MMS employees have no such preparation. As a 1990 National Academy of Sciences report said, "Generally speaking, specific training in inspection procedures is limited to on-the-job training gained while accompanying a trained technician."

"We have to have a government-wide system and plan in place and not rely on the industry and allow them to just say, 'We've got it taken care of if something happens,' " said Rahall, who sent a letter Tuesday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking him for details on MMS inspectors' training, educational qualifications and ties to the oil and gas industry. Americans, Rahall said, "want to see professional, highly trained inspectors that are not just pushing paper."

Some oil industry executives praise MMS inspectors.

"They are required to visit working rigs every 30 days, and they almost always visit our rigs more frequently than that," said Randall D. Stilley, chief executive of Seahawk Drilling, the second-largest operator of Gulf of Mexico rigs that stand on legs in relatively shallow water. "I can't attest to their IQs or educational background, but they tend to be knowledgeable about rigs and rig equipment."

But the MMS can't compete with salaries in private industry. The agency's job ad says that inspectors can make $38,790 to $84,139 a year. Seahawk and Hercules, another shallow-water drilling rig operator, typically pay more than $100,000 a year.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has only intensified questions about MMS inspectors' rigor and judgment.

A review of internal BP documents submitted to the MMS before the explosion suggest that agency officials gave the company's plans only a cursory review as it moved to close the Macondo well. On April 15, five days before the blowout, BP submitted an "Application for Revised Bypass" outlining a well design that omitted a metal pipe 9.875 inches in diameter that had been in the plans up until that point; MMS officials approved the change seven minutes later. Later that day, according to documents obtained by congressional investigators, BP told the agency that it had "inadvertently removed the 9 7/8 inch" liner from the well design information. Have reincorporated it."

There were other discrepancies. On April 16, BP submitted its "Temporary Abandonment Procedure" plan, in which it indicated that the well liner would go down to 17,157 feet, rather than the 17,500 feet it had indicated in permit applications earlier in the week. Although this change showed that BP had not revealed the gap between its lining and cement job -- a gap that could potentially give oil and gas an opening to rush up through the pipe -- the company did not acknowledge the error, nor did the MMS.

BP spokesman Andrew Gowers said in an e-mail that there were "no significance to the changes" in the permit applications. "They resulted from a simple clerical error, and there was no material change in the casing plans."

Interior Department spokesman Kendra Barkoff said she could not comment on BP's permit applications to the MMS because of "the ongoing investigation" of the spill.

Staff writer Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.

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