What a BOEMRE: New report cites litany of problems of offshore drilling regulatory agency

By Kate Sheppard
Mother Jones

(Image)  In the days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appointed a panel to assess the problems at the Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) that may have made the disaster more likely. The Outer Continental Shelf Safety Oversight Board released its findings on Wednesday, and they weren’t pretty. “It is honest,” Secretary Ken Salazar said of the report. “It does not sugar-coat problems.”

Indeed. The report found that BOEMRE does not have enough staff to conduct adequate inspections and the staff it does have is under-trained. Investigators also noted that the agency also doesn’t have a great track record on conducting surprise inspections on offshore operations, or following up on the violations it discovers. 

Given the well-known issues at MMS, much of this isn’t shocking. But the report does highlight the degree to which the agency has been ignored over the years. The bureau’s Gulf operations have been especially neglected. While the Pacific region has five inspectors assigned to 23 production facilities, the Gulf of Mexico has just 55 employees assigned to 3,500 facilities. Since 1982, leasing in the outer continental shelf has increased 200 percent and oil production has increased 185 percent. But staff has been cut 36 percent over a similar period.

The report also outlines the inadequacies of the current penalties for environmental and safety violations. Civil penalties are capped at $35,000 per day, which many staffers said was not a sufficient deterrent. The cap is in place even if someone dies on the job due to an infraction, which demonstrates “the inequities of the current civil penalty fine matrix,” the report concludes. And even when concerns are raised about violations, they’re seldom acted upon. Of the 2,298 reported incidents in 2009, only 87 actually resulted in fines. The report notes that the agency collected just $919,000 in fines last year.

Investigators also pointed to problems with the agency’s review of the oil spill response plans that companies are supposed to provide (the ones with the walruses and dead sea turtle experts). Currently, the agency’s review of the plans “does not ensure that critical data are correct or that other relevant agencies are involved in the review process,” according to the report. Current practices also don’t adequately ensure planning for worst-case scenario accidents like the Deepwater Horizon spill. 

That’s a whole lot of issues. Investigators concluded that all the agency’s failures stem from a central problem:

Above all, through each of the topics addressed in this report runs a single theme: BOEMRE must pursue, and industry must engage in, a new culture of safety in which protecting human life and preventing environmental disasters are the highest priority, with the goal of making leasing and production safer and more sustainable.

If there’s any silver lining to this report, it’s the possibility that things might finally change at the agency formerly known as MMS. The Department of Interior does have plans to improve its wayward child, including a $29 million increase in the budget for offshore drilling inspections and better enforcement also announced yesterday. The agency also plans to hire hundreds of additional inspectors; Salazar said he plans to request an additional $100 million in next year’s budget to add staff. And last week, staffers were informed that they’ll no longer be allowed to have meth parties on company time, so maybe things are looking up. It only took a 4.9 million-barrel oil disaster to get there.

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