OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Interior rewrites history, erases BP from list of finalists for safety award

There are probably a lot of things Interior Department officials would like to change about the how they looked at BP Exploration and Production's drilling operations.

They've found one thing that they can change -- their website.

BP's status as a finalist for the "Safety Award for Excellence" from the disgraced and now-renamed Minerals Management Service has been deleted from Interior's site.

Before the April 20 blowout at BP's Macondo well fouled the Gulf of Mexico with millions of gallons of oil, MMS had announced that BP was a finalist for the prize, known as the SAFE award. The other finalists in the "high-activity" drilling category -- meaning those that produce more than 10 million barrels of oil a year -- were Eni U.S. Operating Co. and Exxon Mobil Corp.

The winner was to be announced at an MMS-sponsored awards lunch during the 2010 Offshore Technology Conference in Houston on May 3. But the awards lunch was canceled, and the winner has never been announced.

The drilling conference, whose sponsors included BP and Halliburton Co., was not canceled. And MMS has since been renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Interior officials failed to respond to messages asking why BP's name was deleted, except to e-mail a copy of the notice canceling the May 3 lunch. Interior spokesman Todd Hughes said the award has not been given out because the lunch has not been rescheduled.

BP has won the award once before, in 1992, when it tied with Conoco. BP was also a finalist in 2009, when Exxon Mobil won.

Transocean Ltd., which drilled the blown-out well from its Deepwater Horizon rig, won in 1999 and 2008. The company was nominated in 2007.

The department has been giving the award for 25 years. The current awards lunch and program at the Houston offshore conference began in 1999.

The award is intended to recognize offshore companies for outstanding work on safety and preventing pollution "by adhering to all regulations, employing trained and motivated personnel, and going the extra mile to enhance safety and environmental protection," according to MMS materials. It is also designed to "encourage voluntary compliance."

Much of the agency's safety program for offshore drilling has been based on such voluntary compliance.

MMS adopted a voluntary approach to safety and environmental compliance in 1994 during the Clinton administration. Last year, BP joined with other oil companies such as Exxon Mobil to oppose a plan to switch to a more regulatory approach involving audits and unannounced inspections. The rules have not been not implemented (Greenwire, April 27).

The safety records of BP and other companies have taken on increased importance as the Obama administration and the industry try to determine the appropriate long-term response to the BP spill.

Other companies' safety records were similar to BP's

When U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman lifted the Obama administration's moratorium on offshore drilling last month, he suggested that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should have examined the safety records of the other companies that were hit by the moratorium (Greenwire, June 24).

"The secretary's determination that a six-month moratorium on issuance of new permits and on drilling by the thirty-three rigs is necessary does not seem to be fact-specific and refuses to take into measure the safety records of those others in the Gulf," Feldman wrote in his preliminary injunction. In a footnote, he noted that Interior's "blitz" inspection after the explosion found all 33 other rigs in deep water to be safe.

But a Greenwire analysis of Interior safety records showed there was little difference between BP and its peers drilling in the Gulf. BP ranked a close third in penalties for safety violations. And statistics compiled on injuries and fires show that BP's records were comparable to those of other deepwater drilling companies (Greenwire, June 24).

The plaque and citation that accompany the honor recognize the company's performance in the prior year. Companies that have a fatality, a major spill or other serious problems during the award year are not eligible for that year's award, indicating that BP and Transocean would likely not be eligible next year.

The SAFE Award finalists are selected through a process that includes analyzing safety inspection records, looking at the quality of the companies' safety technology and the recommendations of MMS district, regional and headquarters officials.

"Only the top candidates who show outstanding performance in each of their respective OCS Districts will be considered a finalist for the National SAFE Award," according to the department website.

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