NEW ORLEANS It's been more than a year since offshore oil and gas operators had to have new safety systems in place; more than a year since a revamped federal agency got the power to audit them.
But agency records show that the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) has not conducted a single audit of the safety systems for any of the 120 operators in the Gulf of Mexico.
What's more, BSEE has only directed two Gulf of Mexico operators to conduct their own safety audits based on poor safety records.
It's a staggering revelation, given the way the agency was restructured and safety was re-emphasized following the catastrophic BP oil spill of 2010.
Not only was the well blowout and deadly explosions on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig a huge embarrassment for the oil industry, it also shone a harsh light on the regulatory agency known then as Minerals Management Service.
President Barack Obama said MMS was 'too cozy' with the industry it was supposed to regulate, and he and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar broke it into three units. The people who hand out federal leases and collect oil royalties were separated from the inspectors and engineers who make sure the oil companies are operating safely.
The offshore drilling industry was shut down for five months after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident, and in November 2010 the government gave its new safety agency teeth with the so-called SEMS Rule.
Subpart S called on oil and gas companies to develop their own Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) by November 2011, audit those systems by November 2013 and also allowed BSEE to perform its own audits if necessary.
Meanwhile, then-BSEE Director Michael Bromwich got a bigger budget and hired hundreds of new inspectors, engineers and auditors to beef up the agency's oversight.
But no audits had been done when three more workers were killed in another offshore explosion last month, this time on an old fixed platform in the shallow water Gulf.
BSEE Regional Director Lars Herbst responded by writing a strongly worded letter to Black Elk's president, calling the company out for a spotty safety record and directing it to hire an independent third-party firm to conduct a SEMS audit.
Eric Smith, assistant director of the Tulane Energy Institute, said that the 16 people with audit experience on BSEE's staff must not be enough to get the process rolling.
'They're getting stricter, they've got the budget to get stricter and sort of the imperative because of the accident to get stricter, but it still takes time to turn the battleship,' Smith said. 'You need experienced auditors and they don't have experienced auditors.'
BSEE said it wants to let the companies do the audits so they'll 'buy in' to the new SEMS program.
But Don Boesch, a former member of Obama's Presidential Oil Spill Commission, said he's worried about leaving that kind of policing in the hands of the industry.
'It's always necessary to mandate the audits or do them on their own or else why would the industry take the audits seriously?' said Boesch, who is from Louisiana and is also the president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
'They acted quickly and put the process as a rule and implementation, but it's now been two years and of course we'd like to see more progress as far as these audits being completed.
A slide show presented to an industry safety group last month by Jason Mathews, one of BSEE's accident investigators for the Deepwater Horizon incident, indicated that the agency tracks poor safety performance with what's called an 'increased oversight list.'
But when we asked BSEE to produce the list, it said no formal list exists.
The slide show also showed a 'dashboard' that allows the agency to measure companies' safety records and compare them. Each facility gets scored based on how many unsafe incidents inspectors found, as a percentage of all of the mechanical components they inspected
. The average, safe Gulf platform generally has four incidents of non-compliance for every 100 components inspected.
We asked BSEE to run certain reports using the dashboard shown in Mathews report. We also asked how Black Elk scored in relation to the rest of the industry. In both cases, BSEE told us we would have to send a formal request and wait.
Multiple sources told Eyewitness News that several Gulf operators have worse safety records than Black Elk.
We asked to interview Herbst or another agency official for this story and were denied. The only comment BSEE would provide was this statement from spokeswoman Eileen Angelico:
'BSEE continues to work diligently to improve safety and environmental protection throughout the offshore energy program. The bureau approaches enforcement strategically to improve the performance of each oil and gas operator.'
Smith said that after a deplorable history of oversight, BSEE needs more time to ramp up its auditing capabilities. But he also found the agency's tight-lipped response to questions about its effectiveness to be ironic.
'They've always been sensitive to ... the fact that the operators, the people who are actually producing the oil and gas, are not transparent in their reporting,' he said. 'But in this case we've got the government regulator saying, 'I'm not going to tell you what my metrics are for measuring people; I'm not going to tell you where this company stacks up with other companies.' To me that's a little bit of a transparency issue all in itself.'