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Barney Fife and Bovine Teats

It’s a truism in the oil business: When it comes to solving a problem, one’s intelligence is proportional to the square of their physical distance from the problem.

For those who barely squeaked through Intermediate Algebra, that means that Congress and Washington-based regulators are really, really smart when it comes to diagnosing and solving problems in the field.

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Before the blazing hulk of the Transocean Horizon disappeared, on its way to its final resting place 5,000 feet below, the inevitable chorus from Washington began a call for tighter regulation, more oversight, and Congressional investigations.

…Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana called for a swift and thorough investigation.

“It is critical that [federal] agencies examine what went wrong and the environmental impact this incident has created,” Sen. Landrieu said in a statement. “These findings should be reported to Congress as soon as possible.” [Source.]

U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Fla., called for the Interior Department to investigate and provide a comprehensive report on all drilling accidents over the past decade.

“The tragedy off the coast of Louisiana shows we need to be asking a lot more tough questions of Big Oil,” Nelson said. [Source.]

Of course, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) will investigate. It’s what they do. Considering the magnitude of the task and the hostile conditions it operates under, the offshore oil and gas industry has an impressive safety record, and one that has improved over the years. This most recent accident bears the largest death toll from a domestic marine rig accident since a blowout in 1964 claimed 24 lives on a drilling barge in Louisiana waters (not Federal jurisdiction). (Ironically, the largest loss of life in Federal waters was in the 1970s, when 13 men perished, not as a result of a blowout, but when their emergency survival capsule overturned as a result of improper towing procedures after a rig evacuation.)

More regulation does not mean more safety; a bureaucratic approach to safety actually makes people less focused on safe results and more focused on CYA paperwork. These days, safety manuals and operating procedures are measured, not by the page, but by the pound. MMS emphasizes training and formal certification for workers, when the emphasis should really be on common sense and developing a safety mindset in workers of all levels.

MMS HQ in Washington encourages this bureaucratic mindset. It sets enforcement quotas for MMS inspectors, and sees fewer enforcement actions as evidence of lax inspection, not improved safety conditions. Regulations are written by desk jockeys with little or no actual operating experience, and hence zero appreciation for the practicalities of their implementation. A line in an AP wire story reveals the attitude:

The U.S. Minerals and Management Service [sic] is developing regulations aimed at preventing human error, which it identified as a factor in many of the more than 1,400 offshore oil drilling accidents between 2001 and 2007. [Source. Emphasis added.]

Preventing human error? Why not develop regulations preventing gravity? It would be easier, and fewer workers would be killed by falling objects.

MMS has some experienced and effective people in engineering and supervisory levels. A push from Washington for more inspection, though, will mean more field inspectors with less experience. The problem is that the distant and politically-motivated HQ staff in Washington encourages enforcement that is more Barney Fife than Sheriff Taylor. (To you younger folks who miss my reference to the old Andy Griffith Show, that means enforcement becomes more adversarial and blindly “by the book” than it is collaborative, supportive and helpful.)

Congressional oversight? Puh-lease. Most in Congress are only looking for a public stage upon which to perform their Congress-schtick. Our congressman, Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA7) shared an anecdote with a local industry group sometime last year. He had organized an educational field trip for a group of 10 Representatives, half Republicans, half Democrats, to visit working drilling and producing operations in the Louisiana sector of the Gulf of Mexico.

Speaker Pelosi canceled the trip as soon as she got wind of it. For a Congressperson to know a little about the industry they’re regulating, it seems, would be a bad thing.

Congress is ignorant of the issues, and seems to like it that way: “All the better to bloviate, my dear.” We should be asking them hard questions, and demanding accountability, not vice versa. Their involvement in offshore safety will only energize and empower the bureaucrats, a guaranteed way to muck things up but good.

My granddad would have said that Congress is “as worthless as tits on a bull”. Hence the title of my diary.

The fact is, the offshore oil and gas business is motivated to be safe and environmentally responsible for many reasons that have nothing to do with regulatory oversight. Operators know that the cost of cutting corners is much higher than doing the right thing in the first place. Worker injuries and fatalities are not covered by workers’ compensation as they would be on land; on mobile vessels, workers are considered seamen and thus are covered by the Jones Act, so an accident means they have a cause of action against their employer in Federal court. (This makes Louisiana heaven for personal injury attorneys.)

Modern oil and gas operators realize that clean, safe operations are the most profitable. We have yet to figure out how to make a nickel by spilling oil or by recklessly exposing workers to job hazards.

Cross-posted at VladEnBlog.

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