The BP Atlantis oil rig / Flickr user Sarah Pierce

The New York Times reported on December 16 that the U.S. Minerals Management Service, which is charged with overseeing the safety of offshore drilling, was unresponsive to inquiries from members of Congress months before the BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout, including concerns based on whistleblower disclosures about BP’s Atlantis deepwater drilling platform.  This case exemplifies why, for government accountability, we need whistleblowers and freedom of information to document mismanagement and policy failures that the government would prefer to keep secret.

Even after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the Obama administration allowed existing deepwater drilling to continue, including other BP rigs.  We posted in June about a whistleblower from BP Atlantis, another Gulf of Mexico deepwater oil drilling rig, who had tried in vain for years to expose critical safety lapses and was terminated shortly after filing his complaints in 2008.  Now, new information shows that months before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Congressional officials sent inquiries to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) related to offshore drilling, potential oil spills, and BP – some including the concerns raised by the whistleblower, Kenneth Abbott – and received little response from the agency.  This and other information was included in 5,400 pages of documents obtained by the New York Times pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Kenneth Abbott, a project manager for BP Atlantis, reported that documentation of important aspects of the Atlantis rig never received “as built” engineering approvals, including deep sea drilling components.  “As built” documentation refers to plans reflecting the final form of the components, which may differ significantly from the initially approved documents and are crucial for use in operations.  Abbott said that while BP knew of the problem, the company declined to fix it because it would cost $2 million (Washington Post).  Joined by the non-profit Food and Water Watch, Abbott filed suit to seek a temporary injunction halting operations until the proper approvals are produced, which would entail reviewing more than 6,000 planning documents that are currently unapproved.

As reported in the New York Times on December 16 by Eric Lichtblau, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his coverage of domestic spying, when an aide to Rep. Sander M. Levin, (D-Michigan) questioned MMS about Food and Water Watch’s allegations, he was told that it was MMS policy not to comment on whether an investigation was underway.

A staff member with the House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee “pressed the agency about BP’s engineering plans and  ‘as-built’ drawings for the Atlantis platform.  He was told that “regulations do not require any qualified experts to verify the documents.”  In their complaint, Food and Water Watch and Abbott disagreed with MMS’s conclusion that “as-built” documentation was not required for the platform components in question.  Pursuant to the Submerged Land Act, they petitioned for the suspension of BP’s lease to operate the rig, based on the “threat of serious, irreparable, or immediate harm or damage to life…or to the marine, coastal or human environment” posed by the faulty safety certifications.

The plaintiffs note that “BP management had been aware of the documentation problems in August 2008 and likely earlier,” and that Abbott’s predecessor acknowledged in an internal e-mail that the use of incomplete, unapproved drawings “could lead to catastrophic Operator errors due to their assuming that the drawing is correct.  Turning over incomplete drawings to the Operator for their use is a fundamental violation of basic Document Control…and process safety regulations.”

A group of 19 Democratic Representatives also raised concerns about Atlantis in a February letter to MMS, and later petitioned the Interior Department to shut down the rig while safety inspections are conducted.

The Washington Post reported: “In an April 13 memo to Abbott, a deputy ombudsman for BP wrote that Abbott’s concerns ‘about the project not following the terms of its own Project Execution Plan were substantiated.’ The memo says those concerns ‘were not unique’ to Abbott and did not drive any action against him,” i.e., BP denied that his termination was in retaliation against Abbott, whose efforts to fix safety-related issues had made him unpopular.

This is all too typical treatment of a whistleblower.

The House passed the Offshore Oil and Gas Worker Whistleblower Protection Act of 2010 (H.R. 5851) in June, which would extend protection from retaliation to workers blowing the whistle on health and safety violations on offshore rigs.  A companion bill has not been introduced in the Senate.

Meanwhile, as Kate Sheppard reported inMother Jones on November 23:

“Despite the now multiple complaints and ongoing investigation [by the MMS, now seven months late and apparently delayed indefinitely], the [BP Atlantis] platform continues to operate –and is doing so in deeper waters and producing more than triple the amount of oil that spilled from the Horizon site each day.”

Some members of Congress were pressing regulators about safety and environmental issues relating to expanding offshore drilling.  But, lest Congress come off looking particularly good in this matter, the documents obtained by the Times reveal that Congressional interest in the MMS typically had little to do with serious oversight of agency management and implementation of regulatory policy – as distinct from communications that were “fawning and solicitous when members were looking to help a constitutent gain business.”  Lichtblau reports:

“A review of the correspondence between the agency and Congressional officials in the year before the BP spill shows that when lawmakers did take an interest in the agency, it often centered on revenues for their states or possible business ties of constituents or donors.

“For instance, when the Interior Department announced a $115 million sale of new drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2009, Congressional aides in districts from Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere quickly approached the agency to determine the financial cuts for their states, the documents show.”

Of course, Congress exempted itself from meeting the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, thus shielding from public view internal workings that would document the rampant parochialism and cozy relationships with corporate interests and funders that characterize much of Congress’ actions on energy policy.  In order to shine a brighter light on this aspect of our political dilemma, we need multiple sources on Capitol Hill who will serve the public interest by disclosing relevant internal documents and reporting on off-the-record interactions to credible sources that will vet them appropriately and make them public.

Earlier CSW posts:

Whistleblower seeking to force shutdown of BP Atlantis oil rig, another potential Gulf disaster

NOAA on the BP oil blowout: Is this any way to communicate science?

Lawsuit seeks answers to why Obama Administration officials lowballed BP oil blowout estimates

BP Atlantis photo courtesy of munchicken (Sarah Pierce) via Flickr and Creative Commons.