Federal oil rig inspectors hit for lapses preceding BP spill

A toughly worded staff paper presented to President Obama's National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in late November zeroes in on the weaknesses of safety inspectors at the former Minerals Management Service, citing a lack of technological sophistication, a cozy relationship with the oil industry and a resource shortage at the Interior Department.

"Federal regulators and inspectors have failed utterly to keep abreast of the profoundly sophisticated technologies involved in deepwater exploration and development," commission Co-Chairman William K. Reilly said at a Dec. 3 hearing at which the staff paper was discussed.

In describing the narrow role federal inspectors assumed -- focusing on regulatory compliance rather than the larger environmental risks BP undertook -- in the months leading up to the April spill, the staff paper said the inspectors were victims of a lack of resources needed for thorough oversight. With only four or five employees in Houston overseeing BP's efforts, "one employee described his experience as akin to standing in a hurricane," working 80 hours a week but still missing key company engineering team meetings.

In addition, the staff paper said, one federal employee "asserted that BP, and industry more broadly, possessed 10 times the expertise that MMS could bring to bear on the enormously complex problem of deepwater containment."

Interviews with Interior employees also showed the government had trouble attracting the most talented employees because the oil drilling industry paid higher salaries. "Perhaps most revealingly," the report added, when high-level officials at Interior asked two inspectors what they would do if the U.S. government took over the spill containment effort, "both said they would hire one of the major oil companies."

MMS has since been renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, and has been reorganizing to better insulate inspectors from the industry. A BOEMRE spokesman told Government Executive on Monday: "We have had a very productive and useful exchange of views with the staff of the presidential commission on the critical structural and organizational issues involved." Under the leadership of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich, "we are aggressively developing more stringent oversight and safety standards," the spokesman said.

Bromwich in Nov. 9 testimony to the commission noted that the Obama administration's fiscal 2011 budget amendment requested a $100 million increase for BOEMRE operations and he hoped to add 200 new inspectors, engineers and environmental scientists. His bureau is reorganizing operations into 11 teams to better separate inspection functions. And he has been recruiting. "In the week after we announced new inspector and engineer positions, we have received more than 500 applications," Bromwich said. "Because the success of the reform agenda for offshore oil and gas exploration and development is largely dependent on bringing this talent and expertise into the government, we are very gratified that our aggressive recruitment efforts are showing such positive results."

In an Oct. 18 speech to a group of international regulators, Bromwich described a "new recusal policy that will reduce the potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest. Employees must notify their supervisor about any potential conflict of interest and request to be recused from performing any official duty in which such a conflict exists. Thus, our inspectors will be required to recuse themselves from performing inspections of former employers."

The presidential commission's final report is due Jan. 12, 2011.

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