Official says Coast Guard will need more resources to inspect foreign oil-drilling operations

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Coast Guard will need more money, manpower and training to conduct inspections if Congress decides to limit oil drilling in U.S. coastal waters to U.S.-flagged ships and drilling rigs, a Coast Guard official said Thursday.

Rear Adm. Kevin Cook, director of prevention policy, said the Coast Guard's resources for inspecting U.S.-flagged ships were stretched thin before the oil spill crisis. Most of the inspection responsibilities for foreign-flagged ships falls to the country where they are registered.

The Coast Guard has only 69 inspectors qualified to inspect deep-water drilling rigs like Deepwater Horizon, the BP rig that failed two months ago, Cook said. That rig was flagged by the Marshall Islands and is owned by Transocean Ltd., based in Switzerland.

"We would like to have more inspectors even for the current workload," Cook testified at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "We are doing some improvisation to make it all work."

There are 275 oil rigs involved in U.S. offshore drilling, at least 80 of which are foreign-flagged, according to information the Coast Guard and the Congressional Research Service supplied the committee. Among the countries flagging the rigs are Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu, a volcanic island chain in the southwest Pacific Ocean. Most of the rigs are in the Gulf of Mexico, although a few are off the coast of Alaska and in other U.S. waters.

There are 442 other vessels that service and supply rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 60 of which are foreign-flagged.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the committee, said he wants to "Americanize" ships and rigs involved in oil drilling in the U.S. economic zone, which extends from the coast to 200 miles offshore. He said ships are being foreign-flagged because the companies that operate them don't want to have to meet U.S. safety and labor standards.

"The question is what capability does the Coast Guard have now to do all those inspections?" Oberstar asked.

"We'd have to invest in people and training," Cook replied. "Right now it would be a challenge to identify exactly what that additional workload would be."

Warren Weaver, Transocean's manager of regulatory compliance, said the company's decision to foreign flag oil rigs was "strictly logistical." He said the rigs, which are inspected by the countries where they are flagged, meet or exceed international standards.