Correction to This Article
The article about the number of oil-related incidents in the Gulf of Mexico outpacing the ability of the Minerals Management Service to investigate them said that the agency, recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, received 12,087 reports of such incidents over the past five years. That is the currenct number of Incidents of Non-Compliance reported to the agency, but not all were in the gulf; a small percentage of the incidents occurred in Alaska or elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The number includes relatively minor matters such as inspection violations; as the article reported, the number of incidents involving deaths, injuries, fires and blowouts was much lower. According to a database on the agency's Web site, the number of serious incidents in the gulf totals 650 to 850 a year. The article also incorrectly described Frank Patton as the lead investigator of a 2009 investigation into gas rising dangerously in one well and an averted rig explosion. Patton was one of four members of an investigative team.

MMS investigations of oil-rig accidents have history of inconsistency

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Marc Kaufman, Carol D. Leonnig and David Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 18, 2010

A year and a day before BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, crew members on a neighboring oil rig found themselves bracing for their own potential disaster.

A dangerous gas bubble surged up a well pipe, and the blowout preventers hadn't worked. The crew reported hearing a "deafening roar" as fluids shot up, knocking over huge metal equipment on the deck. Alarms sounded. Some workers ran to lifeboats, while others stayed behind to control the well.

The accident on the rig, leased by Louisiana Land Oil and Gas (LLOG), was one of the 12,087 oil-related incidents in the gulf reported over the past five years to the federal Minerals Management Service -- the now-revamped agency investigating the BP oil spill. The number of accidents, spills and deaths regularly occurring in the region has far surpassed the agency's ability to investigate them.

Until now, 60 inspectors were tasked with investigating all types of incidents. Between 2006 and 2009, those included 30 worker deaths, 1,298 injuries, 514 fires and 23 blowouts that left wells out of control. They conducted 378 investigations in the gulf in roughly the same time period, with 21 considered worthy of more rigorous and extended scrutiny by a panel.

As federal inspectors work to dissect the underlying causes of the BP accident -- an issue to be probed this week in a new round of joint panel hearings in Kenner, La. -- The Washington Post reviewed several dozen serious MMS investigations in recent years to assess how they were conducted and found large variations in aggressiveness and outcome.

In some cases, investigators ran their own tests, tracked down witnesses and did complicated technical calculations. In others, they relied heavily on information and witness interviews provided by companies. Once their findings were forwarded to agency officials for review, many probes resulted in small fines or none at all.

MMS levied financial penalties 154 times in the past five years, agency officials testified last month. Although the agency now may assess fines of up to $35,000 per day, in five years it collected only $8.5 million. Its largest fine between 2000 and 2009 was $697,500, according to an MMS Web site.

It took 11 months for MMS to finalize its report in the LLOG case, and along the way it sometimes accepted the accounts of company officials without probing more deeply, the report shows.

Investigators asked to see a safety valve provided by a subcontractor, Halliburton Corp. When Halliburton told investigators the device was under repair and couldn't be examined, an inspector accepted the company's assertions and data. Kendra Barkoff, an Interior Department spokeswoman, said Saturday that the valve played no role in the accident.

The inquiry concluded that no rules had been broken, no fines were warranted, and the agency's response should be to alert the industry to potential risks. Barkoff noted that "some accidents are just that: accidents that involve no wrongdoing or criminal or negligent behavior."

The team looking into that case was led by Frank Patton, a veteran investigator also responsible for monitoring the Deepwater Horizon rig. In recent weeks, Patton has testified that he approved a BP drilling plan that other oil companies and drilling experts have said was deeply flawed.

The supervisor who approved the LLOG report was J. David Dykes, co-chairman of the joint panel with the Coast Guard that on Monday begins its second round of hearings into the BP blowout. Dykes referred questions to Barkoff, who also answered for Patton. "Frank Patton and David Dykes . . . are committed to ensuring the safety of offshore energy operation," Barkoff said.

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