MMS regulations... too little too late?

The small U.S. agency that oversees offshore drilling doesn’t write or implement most safety regulations, having gradually shifted such responsibilities to the oil industry itself for more than a decade.

Instead, the Minerals Management Service—now caught up in the crisis of the Deepwater Horizon rig that for weeks has sent crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico—sets broad performance goals for the industry. Oil producers and drilling companies are then free to decide for themselves how to meet those goals, industry executives and former regulators say.

Associated Press
Oil-covered booms on a shrimp boat in Breton Sound, La., Thursday.

A Wall Street Journal examination of the MMS’s track record found several instances of the agency identifying potential safety problems and then either not requiring follow-up or relying on the industry to craft a solution. In some cases, the industry didn’t do its part.

The Journal also found that the safety record of U.S. offshore drilling compares unfavorably, in terms of deaths and serious accidents, to other major oil-producing countries. Over the past five years, an offshore oil worker in the U.S. was more than four times as likely to be killed than a worker in European waters, and 23% more likely to sustain an injury, according to International Association of Drilling Contractors data, which is adjusted for man-hours worked.

Asked about The Journal’s findings on its safety record and practices, MMS officials said in an interview Wednesday that the agency plans to toughen its oversight. Any new regulations emerging from the current crisis “will be a prescriptive regulation,” said Lars Herbst, head of the MMS’ Gulf of Mexico region. He said the agency is unlikely to give the industry much latitude to decide how to make changes. “After this accident investigation is done, I would bet there won’t be any performance-based regulation that comes out to address any problem that we may uncover,” he said.

Mr. Herbst questioned the data on deaths, saying the number of working hours could be underreported in the U.S. That would make the U.S. fatality rate look higher.

The agency points out it does conduct numerous inspections. It leases 14 helicopters to ferry inspectors, often unannounced, out to the 3,800 drilling rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico that it oversees. But the number of rigs inspected has fallen significantly in recent years, according to agency data, from 1,292 in 2005 to 760 by 2009.

Just the first few paragraphs in a fairly damning Wall Street Journal artcile on MMS inspection. The full article is found HERE.