USCG beefs up MODU inspection capacity, Senate panel told

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, July 20 -- The US Coast Guard has increased its resources to inspect mobile offshore drilling units since last year’s Macondo deepwater well accident and oil spill, Rear Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, USCG’s assistant commandant for marine safety, security, and stewardship, told a US Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee.

The US Department of Homeland Security agency announced a risk-based program for MODUs on July 7 that will result in more frequent examination of the highest-risk units based on accident history, past discrepancies, flag state performance, and classification society performance, Zukunft said in written testimony submitted to the committee’s Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee.

“Marine inspectors will focus on critical areas, such as dynamic positioning systems and operator competency,” he said. The Obama administration’s proposed fiscal 2012 budget requests money for more inspectors, investigators, and other marine safety personnel to inspect vessels and conduct post-incident investigations, he indicated.

“All MODUs operating in the United States are subject to annual examinations to verify compliance with area laws and international conventions,” Zukunft said. “If that exam finds ‘questionable equipment, systems, or crew competency issues’, [USCG] can expand its investigation to determine whether a deficiency exists, and may require additional tests, inspections, or crew drills.”

It also is actively overseeing the Marine Well Containment Corp. and Helix Well Control Group’s development of offshore spill containment capabilities to promote rigorous testing and ensure that vessels can respond to a spill and meet applicable safety and environmental requirements, he continued. An Outer Continental Shelf Activities Matrix Team which it recently established will focus on emerging issues, increase USCG’s plan review and inspection oversight, support investigations and casualty analysis, “and provide a holistic approach to management of OCS safety programs,” Zukunft said.

Working with BOEMRE
He noted that USCG shares US offshore oil and gas regulatory responsibilities with the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, with memorandums of understanding and regulations delineating each agency’s role. USCG’s primary responsibilities generally are related to vessel operations and safety systems, and include a MODU’s firefighting, electrical, and lifesaving systems, and hull structures, Zukunft explained. USCG “does not oversee drilling systems, but the interface between surface and subsurface operations warrants close coordination and cooperation between both agencies,” he said.

“We continue to engage and improve coordination with BOEMRE through a prevention working group that focuses on enhancing alignment and consistency between the two agencies on how inspections are conducted,” he told the subcommittee. “The team will coordinate closely with [USCG]-sponsored OCS stakeholder organizations such as the National Offshore Safety Advisory Committee and other BOEMRE-Coast Guard meetings and working groups as vehicles for improving OCS safety.”

The agencies also formed a joint response work group to improve interagency partnerships and collaborate on improving preparedness efforts after the Macondo well blowout, Zukunft said. Significant initiatives include joint oil spill response plan reviews, regional and area contingency plan analyses, joint BOEMRE-USCG pollution equipment inspections, and a review of the effective daily recovery capacity standard for mechanical recovery equipment, he noted.

The US oil and gas industry also has significantly improved offshore safety operations since the accident and spill, according to Erik Milito, the American Petroleum Institute’s upstream and industry operations director. “Immediately after the accident, the industry formed task forces to examine every aspect of offshore safety systems, including equipment, operating practices, subseal well control, and spill response,” he told the subcommittee. “Due to the leadership and work of the industry, we now have enhanced capabilities in each of the key areas: prevention, capping and containment, and spill response.”

Moving forward, the US oil and gas industry has committed to review the entire spill response system, identify any potential gaps, and address them where necessary, Milito said. “We have initiated this review on issues such as dispersants, in-situ burning, and mechanical recovery,” he said. “This review effort involves both US and international stakeholders; it is open to the entire industry; it covers both Gulf of Mexico and Alaska activities; and it seeks government input in the program.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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