WASHINGTON – The company whose Gulf of Mexico oil platform erupted in flames this week cited the industry's "excellent safety record" when it opposed a proposed federal rule last year that would require offshore oil and gas operators to have safety systems aimed at reducing workers' mistakes.
The government still hasn't put the safety rule in place despite Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's recommendation months ago that it be adopted. Mariner Energy Inc., and others in the industry, including BP, opposed it when it was proposed last year.
The rule would require operators to develop safety and environmental management systems that federal regulators said could have prevented at least some of the 33 major accidents they studied. A former senior U.S. regulator — Elizabeth Birnbaum, who lost her job after the BP oil spill — previously told Congress that the safety rule would eliminate two-thirds of all offshore accidents.
It was not immediately clear whether these safety systems could have prevented the fire in the Gulf, which is still under investigation.
In a Sept. 10, 2009, letter to government regulators, Mariner said the proposal was a "major, paperwork-intensive, rulemaking that will significantly impact our business, both operationally and financially," with little or no safety benefit.
The company's environmental and safety director, Blaine E. Dinger, cited the offshore industry's "excellent safety record" and said the rule was not justified. The National Ocean Industries Association, an industry trade group, used nearly identical language in its own letter Sept. 23 last year.
Dinger said Friday the fire hasn't changed his mind.
"What went on with Mariner or what went on with BP, even with a robust (safety) program, possibly could have still happened," he said in a brief telephone interview.
Federal authorities have cited Mariner Energy and related entities for 10 accidents in the Gulf over four years, including platform fires, pollution spills and a blowout, according to federal records.
In the proposal last year, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service said most accidents and oil spills can be traced to mistakes by workers or organizational failures.
Under the rule, these safety systems would identify and reduce the likelihood of spills; analyze proposed changes for problems; require written procedures; and require that equipment is designed, installed, tested, inspected and monitored properly.
Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the newly renamed U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said the new rule has been improved since the April oil spill and will be put in place soon.
BP also protested against the new safety rule. BP vice president Richard Morrison wrote in September 2009 that his company opposed what he called "the extensive, prescriptive regulations as proposed in this rule." He also cited the industry's safety and environmental record and said voluntary safety programs were working.
The director for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Michael Bromwich, told a committee meeting of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council last month that the rule will be in place "in the very near future."
Birnbaum, Bromwich's predecessor, told the presidential commission investigating the spill last week that MMS was finalizing the rule at the time of the BP spill. Birnbaum told the commission to consider insisting that the rule be put in place. She declined an interview request from The Associated Press on Friday.
On the Web:
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement: http://www.boemre.gov/
Mariner Energy: http://www.mariner-energy.com/