Federal inquiries on oil rig incidents spotty, review finds

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post / July 19, 2010

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WASHINGTON — 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, 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 now work to dissect the underlying causes of the BP accident — an issue to be studied this week in a new round of joint panel hearings in Kenner, La. — the Post reviewed several dozen serious Minerals Management Service 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. Many inquiries resulted in small fines or none at all.

The Minerals Management Service levied financial penalties 154 times. 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 Minerals Management Service website.

It took 11 months for the Minerals Management Service to finalize its report in the Louisiana Land Oil and Gas case, 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 specialists have said was deeply flawed.

Barkoff said the agency has “taken unprecedented steps to make sure the investigation of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is thorough, independent, and gets to the bottom of what happened.’’

In an interview, Michael Bromwich, director of the Minerals Management Service successor agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy, declined to look back on specific investigations but said he believes performance will improve with the addition of up to 200 new inspectors in coming years. top stories on Twitter

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