WASHINGTON — Federal regulators warned offshore rig operators more than a decade ago that they needed to install backup systems to control the giant undersea valves known as blowout preventers, used to cut off the flow of oil from a well in an emergency.
The warnings were repeated in 2004 and 2009. Yet the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency charged both with regulating the oil industry and collecting royalties from it, never took steps to address the issue comprehensively, relying instead on industry assurances that it was on top of the problem, a review of documents shows.
In the intervening years, numerous blowout preventers and their control systems have failed, though none as catastrophically as those on the well the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was preparing when it blew up on April 20, leaving tens of thousands of gallons of oil a day spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Agency records show that from 2001 to 2007, there were 1,443 serious drilling accidents in offshore operations, leading to 41 deaths, 302 injuries and 356 oil spills. Yet the federal agency continues to allow the industry largely to police itself, saying that the best technical experts work for industry, not for the government.
Critics say that, then and now, the minerals service has been crippled by this dependence on industry and by a climate of regulatory indulgence.
“Everything that’s done by the oil industry is done for profit,” said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, who demanded this week that the Interior Department investigate these backup safety systems. “Throw in the fact that regulators have taken a lax attitude toward overseeing their operations, and you have a recipe for catastrophe.”
Last year, BP, the owner of the well that blew up in the gulf, teamed with other offshore operators to oppose a proposed rule that would have required stricter safety and environmental standards and more frequent inspections. BP said that “extensive, prescriptive” regulations were not needed for offshore drilling, and urged the minerals service to allow operators to define the steps they would take to ensure safety largely on their own.
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