Regulators share blame in BP oil spill, lawmakers say

By Julie Schmit, USA TODAY

The number of federal inspectors for deepwater oil facilities has not kept pace with the industry's growth, lawmakers said Tuesday at a House hearing into the BP oil spill.
The federal agency regulating offshore drilling has just 60 inspectors in the Gulf of Mexico for nearly 4,000 facilities, just five more inspectors than it had in 1985, according to a memo prepared by the Democratic majority staff for the subcommittee hearing of the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The number of producing deepwater wells increased from 65 in 1985 to 602 in 2009, the memo says.

"Inspection has not been a priority," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who chaired the hearing.

Along with limited inspection, the Minerals Management Service, the agency that oversees the industry and is now called the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, failed at numerous junctures to upgrade safety of deepwater drilling. This occurred especially during the George W. Bush administration but also during the Obama administration, lawmakers said.

While BP has been accused by lawmakers of cutting corners, regulators overseeing BP share blame, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said.

"The cop on the beat (MMS) was off duty for nearly a decade," he said.

The memorandum, prepared for Waxman and other lawmakers, alleges that the minerals service:

•Approved changes to the BP well's design that may have increased the risk of a blowout, which occurs when drillers lose control of a well. The BP well that started to spill oil in April was just capped, although concerns remain about seepage.

•Failed to act upon a series of reports prepared for the minerals service in 2001, 2002 and 2003 that recommended two blind shear rams on blowout preventers, the safety devices that are supposed to seal wells should blowouts occur. The government recently recommended two sets of rams.

•Failed to require more stringent standards in the cementing of wells. In 2000, the MMS questioned the practice of letting drillers set their procedures. The minerals service decided not to impose any cementing requirements.

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At the BP well, BP made several decisions during cementing "which may have increased the likelihood of a blowout," the memo says.

Since the BP blowout, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has reorganized the agency, imposed a temporary drilling moratorium and recommended new safeguards. The department is also hiring additional inspectors, he said. Previous Interior Department chiefs also testified that during their reigns the safety record of offshore drilling was stellar.

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