NEW ORLEANS - The federal offshore safety agency – empowered after Deepwater Horizon to audit oil company’s safety systems, but unwilling so far to use that power – actually scheduled to do a single, partial audit of one Gulf operator last year but then canceled the review without explanation.
That’s what Eyewitness News learned this week after waiting six months for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to produce public records under the Freedom of Information Act.
In fact, we asked the agency in December for data they keep measuring how safe various oil companies’ Gulf operations are. But all they turned over were 11 pages of letters and schedules the agency sent to New Orleans’ Energy Partners Ltd. when they planned to send an audit team to look at EPL’s safety systems.
There were four days of meetings scheduled in March 2012. The bureau even named its auditing team. But the trial audit – which was only supposed to look at four of the company’s 13 required safety systems -- never happened.
Energy Partners chief financial officer T.J. Thom said BSEE never told her why it was canceled. Meanwhile, safety agency spokesman Nick Pardi wouldn’t tell us why, rather saying the agency “will not engage in a continued back and forth with you on specific audit plans.”
Energy Partners and the rest of the Gulf oil companies must turn in safety audits by private third parties by November. To help them along, the BSEE offered companies the opportunity to avoid pre-audit reviews by federal regulators if they turned in the reports early, by March 29. But BSEE has not answered our question of how many audits were turned in early.
BSEE Director James Watson spoke this week at the Center for Offshore Safety, an industry-run group formed to improve safety. He struck a decidedly conciliatory tone and downplayed enforcement as he told oil companies that his agency and industry have to work together to truly change safety offshore.
“To improve safety and continue the development of a strong safety culture, we can’t rely solely on deterrents,” he said. “Shut-ins, INC’s, and civil penalties are only one way to encourage the observance of all rules and regulations, but those things alone are not enough. Ultimately it is in all of our best interest to foster a strong safety culture and push each other to be better.”
Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, said this is not the time to pull back on enforcement, as companies drill in ever deeper, ever more dangerous locations, mostly off the Louisiana coast.
“It’s going to be much more dangerous, which means we need to be much more rigorous in our enforcement,” she said. “And yet, what I can see, is the agency is having their hands tied by the political environment that’s going on and we’re relying more and more, again, on industry self-audits.”
President Obama’s Oil Spill Commission recently blasted Congress for its failure to do anything to make offshore work safer. But the commissioners said they are also hoping the new safety rules, which include a new stop-work hotline posted on all rigs and platforms, will at least empower workers to stop a job without fear of reprisal.
“The hotline basically means the people who are very knowledgeable about what’s going on on the rig can say there’s a problem here, without the pressure to simply keep on keeping on,” commission member Fran Ulmer said.
But one offshore worker told us that stop-work authority means little in the face of intimidation from superiors and co-workers to keep quiet about safety or environmental violations.
In 2009, Jason Bourgeois of Centreville, Miss., says a pipe on his platform ruptured, spewing high-pressure natural gas and oil. He issued a stop-work order, but he says his bosses insisted that he and his colleagues plug the hole with a screw and keep on going.
“Stop work authority; I mean, it sounds great. But until you actually enforce it and see for yourself…” Bourgeois said. “What are you gonna do when people just decide to go back to work when it’s still unsafe?”