The inspectors responsible for ensuring the safety of offshore oil drilling operations are overwhelmed by their workloads, trained insufficiently and inadequately protected from industry pressure, according to the Department of the Interior’s inspector general.
Many of the problems, which include a lack of official procedures for dealing with key issues, reflect regulators’ failure to keep up with growth in offshore drilling and increased activity on existing wells after Hurricanes Ivan, Katrina and Rita in 2004 and 2005.
The inspector general report, The New York Times says, mirrors an earlier department investigation but offers additional recommendations and provides new details about problems facing the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, formerly called the Minerals Management Service. The agency was reorganized after the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which took 11 lives and produced the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
The inspections program, Inspector General Mary L. Kendall found, is poorly defined within the bureau. As an example, the report noted that “although the informally acknowledged policy in the Gulf of Mexico is to inspect drill rigs once a month, we could not locate such a policy.”
The report cites many detailed examples of the challenges that face inspectors. In some cases, the report said, platform operators would “suspend operations until the inspector leaves the platform” to avoid being caught in “incidents of noncompliance.”
In addition, a survey of agency employees found that nearly 20 percent of those polled said their scientific work had been “suppressed, ignored, manipulated and/or distorted at some point in their careers.” In some cases they attributed the interference to the fact that their recommendations would burden the industry, the Times said.
Additionally, inspectors who issued a high number of noncompliance notices to a company “reported being subject to industry pressure, often without management support to back them up,” while inspectors who found few instances of noncompliance “do not experience the same pressure.”