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62 Regulators, 4,000 Wells: MMS in the Gulf

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig had a man-made cause. We have an eyewitness survivor of the blast now willing to say that the blowout preventer was leaking for weeks before the explosion, and BP and Transocean failed to repair the valve in response, merely shutting it off instead. If they actually repaired it, that would shut down production. The last line of defense, the “blind shear ram,” designed to slice the pipe and seal the well in the event of a disaster, malfunctioned, and BP never had to show proof that the technique would actually work. In fact, the Deepwater Horizon, unlike every new BP well, had only one blind shear ram; two are now standard.

A legitimate Minerals Management Service could have known about the leaking blowout preventer before the blast. It could have acted on the inherent problems with the blind shear ram and the oil industry’s failsafe measures in general (blowout preventers have a 45% failure rate, according to a confidential Transocean report). But we didn’t have a legitimate MMS to deal with this disaster. We have 62 regulators dealing with over 4,000 offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore drilling, has had an inadequate inspection force, Salazar said.

There are “4,000 wells in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “How can 62 people do that job?”

The number of inspectors could quadruple in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Salazar said. Still, he expressed doubts that better inspections would have prevented the blowout.

“There were a whole host of problems that occurred on this well and on this rig. Many of those problems were detected hours before, in fact, days beforehand,” he said. “No level of regulation would have prevented what happened.”

I don’t agree with Salazar on that last bit. Some of these problems were identified not days, but months and years before the blowout. Right from the start, MMS provided waivers to the Deepwater Horizon rig, and inspections were often filled out by the company themselves. Maybe this reflexive defense of an indefensible agency is why Salazar has been given a much lower profile as the weeks have gone on.

Even now, two months and counting into the disaster, MMS is giving out permits without environmental reviews. The Interior Department claims that these are not new drilling projects but ones already approved, but given the scope of the problems with MMS, I cannot see how their original permits shouldn’t be scrutinized. Environmental groups are right to sue MMS for continuing to grant waivers. They’re like a junkie who can’t stop taking hits. It’s bad enough having 62 regulators for 4,000 wells; it’s worse taking them off the beat.

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David Dayen

David Dayen