Foreign flagging of offshore rigs skirts U.S. safety rules

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Foreign flagging of offshore rigs skirts U.S.
safety rules

The Marshall Islands, not the U.S., had the main
responsibility for safety inspections on the Deepwater
Horizon.

June 14, 2010
|By Tom
Hamburger and Kim Geiger, Tribune Washington Bureau

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico was built in South Korea. It
was operated by a Swiss company under contract to a British oil firm. Primary responsibility for
safety and o
ther inspections rested not with the U.S. government but with the Republic of the
Marshall Islands


a tiny, impoverished nation in the Pacific Ocean.

And the Marshall Islands, a maze of tiny atolls, many smaller than the ill
-
fated oil rig,
outsourced many

of its responsibilities to private companies.

Now, as the government tries to figure out what went wrong in the worst environmental
catastrophe in U.S. history, this international patchwork of divided authority and sometimes
conflicting priorities is eme
rging as a crucial underlying factor in the explosion of the rig.

Under International law, offshore oil rigs like the Deepwater Horizon are treated as ships, and
companies are allowed to "register" them in unlikely places such as the Marshall Islands, Pana
ma
and Liberia


reducing the U.S. government's role in inspecting and enforcing safety and other
standards.

"Today, these oil rigs can operate under different, very minimal standards of inspection
established by international maritime treaties," said Rep.

James L. Oberstar (D
-
Minn.), chairman
of the House Transportation Committee.

Some offshore drilling experts, as well as some survivors of the explosion that led to the massive
spill, say foreign registration also permitted a confusing command structure an
d understaffing


factors that may have contributed to the disaster.

Senior members of Congress


including Oberstar and House Natural Resources Committee
Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D
-
W.Va.)


have begun looking into the inspection and staffing
issues. Th
e House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation will hold a
hearing Thursday on foreign
-
flagged rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Different types of rigs are classified differently, and the Marshall Islands assigned the Deepwater
Horizon to a cat
egory that permitted lower staffing levels.

"Over the years, the manning dwindled down and down," said Douglas Harold Brown, chief
mechanic aboard the Deepwater Horizon, who had been assigned to the floating drilling rig
since

shortly after it was manufact
ured in 2000.


"I believe that safety was compromised by
this,"

he said in an interview.

Brown's lawyer and others say the Marshall Islands licensed the Deepwater Horizon in a way
that allowed rig operator Transocean Ltd. to place an oil drilling expert


the so
-
called offshore
installation manager


ahead of a licensed sea captain in making decisions on the day of the
explosion.

The dual command structure created confusion that delayed an effective response to the growing
crisis aboard the Deepwater Horizo
n, he and others allege.

Officials at Transocean and the Marshall Islands reject the claims. They say they fulfilled all
requirements of the law and met the highest industry standards, and those of the Coast Guard.

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Transocea
n, called the complaints "egregiously unfounded and
inflammatory." The disorganization reported by crew members who survived the Deepwater
Horizon explosion was the result of a tragic and unexpected disaster, not deficiencies in manning
or safety standards

on the part of Transocean, Kennedy said.

"At the end of the day, I think the fact that 115 people got off the rig that night will be viewed as
a testament to the training, skill and heroic acts of dozens of crew members,"

he said.

The Marshall Islands dep
uty maritime minister, Thomas Heinan, said the manning requirements
aboard the Deepwater Horizon were "equal to those of the U.S. and in accordance with
international standards."

A deepwater oil rig floats above the well, connected by thousands of feet of
pipe, and is kept in
position by thrusters and elaborate navigational systems.

Since World War II,

thousands of ships and rigs from the U.S. and other industrialized countries
have been registered in less
-
developed nations like the Marshall Islands.

Some m
embers of Congress are expressing concern about the Marshall Islands and other
countries that outsource their inspection responsibilities to private companies. Coast Guard
officials confirm that more rigorous inspection procedures apply to the relatively s
mall number
of rigs registered in the U.S.

A foreign vessel will be reviewed by the Coast Guard, but the inspection is relatively cursory,
relying on inspection reports prepared by outside firms that have been paid directly by the
owners of the vessel.

The

federal Minerals Management Service, which also has a role in overseeing offshore oil
operations, deals only with issues "below the waterline" of the floating rig. It was not responsible
for rig staffing, command structure or other above
-
water operations.