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Offshore Oil, Gas Safety Agency Defends Its Performance (1)

April 24, 2019, 1:40 PMUpdated: April 24, 2019, 5:51 PM

The Interior Department is pushing back against allegations it’s not doing enough to protect offshore drilling safety.

The recent charges in a report by the environmental group Oceana match up with those of Democrats in Congress who have been trying—with limited success—to spotlight what they consider to be poor performance at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

The Trump administration has said more offshore drilling is important for economic growth and energy security and is set to release the draft of its new five-year drilling plan soon. Both the congressional Democrats and Oceana want to stop the expansion of offshore drilling.

Not Enough Staff?

In its report, Oceana said the approximately 120 inspectors at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) aren’t enough to conduct more than 20,000 inspections annually.

The agency also has had trouble hiring new employees because of competition from better-paying oil and gas companies, Oceana said, referencing BSEE’s own fiscal 2020 budget justification.

Bureau spokeswoman Tiffany Gray didn’t contest the inspector count, but said that figure is roughly twice what it was in 2010.

Further, BSEE is conducting roughly 16 percent more offshore inspections than it did in 2016, reaching 9,800 in fiscal 2018, Gray told Bloomberg Environment.

Gray said the discrepancy between its 9,800 inspections and the 20,000 listed in a January 2018 agency fact sheet arose because of a change in the way the bureau counts inspections, and whether the term “inspection” refers to the overall system inspection, or also to the inspection of individual components and safety devices.

The agency is working to finalize a new, consistent way of counting inspections and expects that “going forward we will get a clearer picture of our overall inspection activities,” Gray said.

Inspectors also spent 6.1 percent more time physically inspecting facilities in the Outer Continental Shelf from April to December 2018 than they did over the same months in 2016, Gray said.

Industry-Written Standards OK: BSEE

She further defended the agency against Oceana’s charge that it uses industry-written standards.

The report said the agency’s rules let the oil and gas industry “govern itself without adequate independent oversight.”

Under the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, BSEE is required to incorporate industry standards, Gray said.

BSEE didn’t respond to other parts of the Oceana report, such as the finding that the agency referred only 38 of 2,643 incidents of noncompliance in 2016 to the civil penalty process.

“This shows there is a financial incentive to ignore regulatory compliance and cut corners to protect profits,” Oceana’s report said.

Drilling Rig Fires

Gray also didn’t comment on the Oceana report’s finding that, from 2007 to 2017, drilling rigs experienced an average of 120 fires and explosions per year, injuring hundreds of workers.

Oceana said its findings were the result of a survey of government documents, public reporting, scientific literature, and interviews with policy experts.

Drilling opponents have tried before to challenge the Trump administration’s approach to offshore safety.

At an April 4 House hearing, Democrats asked why BSEE’s budget proposes cutting its oil spill research by 15 percent and why the fees offshore drilling companies pay for safety inspections are so low.

BSEE Director Scott A. Angelle largely evaded the questioning, saying the cuts won’t hurt the oil spill preparedness program and agreeing that the fees should be hiked.

(Updates with BSEE's comments in eighth and ninth paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com

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