Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Birnbaum’s last statements as MMS chief

Before we let S. Elizabeth Birnbaum ride completely into the sunset as US Minerals Management Service director, it’s worth a look at what may have been her final public statements in that capacity.

Birnbaum testified before the US House Natural Resources Committee on May 26 alongside US Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, deputy unified area commander on the Deepwater Horizon fire and MC 252 well’s crude oil spill, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco. Most of the committee’s questions were directed at the other two witnesses, but a few were addressed to Birnbaum.

Her most important message was that MMS was considering additional safety and environmental inspections. “We are reviewing what the standards are for blowout response plans, along with all the other requirements for offshore oil and gas activity,” she said.

She also may have tried to suggest that there are limits to what MMS can do. “Blowout preventer tests are conducted by the operator. We observe some tests, but we do not observe them all,” she said. “The operator is required to keep documentation of the numerous tests which occur on these rigs. If the operator is found to have lied on any them, it is subject to prosecution.”

When committee member Madeline Z. Bordallo (D-Calif.) said that MMS had a technology research assessment program to evaluate the US government’s response to oil spills and asked what the research program had been doing, Birnbaum said that it had studied how spilled oil spread and traveled.

There also have been some upgrades in equipment, she continued before agreeing with another House Democrat from California, George Miller, that the government has found nothing which will assure that oil is removed from water. “I think the idea of devoting more government focus on improving oil spill recovery technology is worth considering,” she said when a third committee member, California Democrat Lois Capps, proposed a national center to consolidate spill technology response.

Birnbaum was much more loquacious when Jim Costa (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee’s Energy and Minerals Resources Subcommittee, asked about allegations that the agency essentially was letting the American Petroleum Institute and oil and gas industry groups develop regulations.

“MMS formulates its own drilling and safety regulations, which incorporates standards from eight professional organizations including API,” she crisply responded. “At times, our regulations go beyond API standards. We recently put out regulations for high-pressure safety seals that went beyond API’s standards.

“We attempt to set very high safety standards,” Birnbaum continued. “It’s hard to compare them to other regulatory regimes, which are set up differently. We regularly reject comments from industry that we just go back to API standards.”

MMS also has memorandums of understanding with its counterparts in other countries on offshore safety regulations, she said. “We called regulators in other countries when we read reports that they require acoustic systems,” Birnbaum said. “They allow them as an option, not a requirement, as we do.” She also said that testing the deadman device while it’s in place puts the rig at risk, and that MMS would like to develop a protocol so that this would not be the case.

Her remarks concerning acoustic systems as blowout preventer backups might have had more impact if they’d been made before the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where the leadership made such a big deal about them immediately after the blowout and where Birnbaum was scheduled to testify the afternoon of May 27. But she resigned that morning, and Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes went instead.


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