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

Cleanup and containment efforts continue at the Gulf of Mexico site of the oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010

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.

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