US agency admits lax enforcement of oil drilling

A US official acknowledged Wednesday that the oil and gas industry largely polices its own drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico with little government supervision.

At a hearing into the deadly rig explosion that led to a massive, growing oil spill, the Minerals Management Service official said the regulatory agency did not enforce compliance with its “safety alerts” on underwater blowout preventers and allowed oil companies to inspect their own drilling equipment.

“I am not aware of who does the self-certification,” Michael Saucier, the Minerals Management Service regional supervisor, said when asked about the inspections.

The testimony came a day after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans to break up the functions of the MMS to eliminate a conflict of interest in its role as oil industry regulator and a leaser of lucrative federal oil rights.

“I’m not understanding what good these regulations are if they are not enforceable,” said Coast Guard Captain Hung Nguyen, who co-chaired the Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation hearing with MMS.

The little known agency brings in billions of dollars a year in revenue from leases and royalties from an industry whose safety and environmental practices it also regulates.

Saucier said the accident on the Deepwater Horizon was the first deadly blowout on a Gulf rig drilling at a depth of 5,000 feet or more.

Fiery explosions ripped through the rig on April 20, killing 11 workers, sinking the structure and fracturing a riser pipe that is now gushing more than 200,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico.

The public hearing was part of a federal probe into the cause of the disaster, which threatens the ecology and economy of a Gulf coast rich in fish and wildlife.

Also testifying were officials from the tiny Marshall Islands, where the 600 million dollar Deepwater Horizon was registered in December 2004.

Brian Bubar, deputy commissioner of maritime affairs for the Marshall Islands, testified that safety inspections of the ill-fated rig were delegated to reputable third parties.

“We have nothing to do with the drilling operation,” said Captain Thomas Heinan, a second Marshall Islands deputy commissioner.

The US depends on oil and gas operations on the federal Outer Continental Shelf — three to 200 miles off the coast — of the Gulf of Mexico for roughly one third of the nation’s energy, according to MMS figures.

Asked what type of training the agency provides inspectors to keep up with the high-technology used in deepwater drilling rigs, Saucier replied, “primarily on-the-job training.”

Since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, MMS inspections show that all deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf are compliant with MMS safety regulations. There were 42 drilling rigs operating in the Gulf as of May 3.

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