State of Denial at Interior Dept.?

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The New York Times has a big piece today looking at yet another piece of technology on the Deepwater Horizon rig that apparently malfunctioned: the “blind sheer ram,” a pair of blades that were supposed to slice through the drill pipe and seal the well off in the event that everything else fails. The Times calls it the “ultimate failsafe device.” Problem is, it did fail.

The article explores why that may have happened, and also notes that the Deepwater was only outfitted with one blind shear ram, while many other rigs have begun using two of them. But the key point in the piece is that for years prior to the Deepwater blowout the Minerals Management Service (MMS) was well aware problems with this technology. This revelation isn’t exactly new; as we noted last month, MMS knew of problems with shear rams, but issued no new regulations to deal with them (in addition to ignoring a number of other red-flags on deepwater drilling technology over the years). In fact, a number of studies finding problems with shear rams and blowout preventers were commissioned by MMS.

The article highlights the fact that the Obama administration failed to look at this and other major concerns about offshore drilling technology before announcing a major expansion of drilling in March. But what’s most interesting, however, is that Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes is now pretending that MMS had no indication of potential problems. No, really:

“What happened to all the stakeholders—Congress, environmental groups, industry, the government—all stakeholders involved were lulled into a sense of what has turned out to be false security,” David J. Hayes, the deputy interior secretary, said in an interview.

And later in the piece:

Mr. Hayes, the deputy interior secretary, said senior officials were reassured, perhaps wrongly, by “the NASA kind of fervor” over the oil industry’s seemingly “terrific technology.” They took comfort in what appeared to be a comprehensive regime of regulations. Most of all, he said, they were impressed by the rarity of significant oil spills even as more of the nation’s domestic oil supply was being drawn from ultradeep wells.

“The track record was good,” he said. “The results were significant.”

Not even environmental groups bitterly opposed to expanding offshore drilling were raising concerns about the industry’s technology for preventing deepwater spills, he added. “We were not being drawn by anybody to a potential issue with deepwater drilling or blowout preventers.”

Really? Because I can go back to the record from a Senate hearing last November on offshore development and find two environmentalists raising a number of concerns about the safety of offshore drilling– see Dr. Jeff Short of Oceana and John Amos of SkyTruth.

Hayes also argues that the report that MMS provided to the administration before Obama made the decision to open new areas to drilling didn’t provide any warnings about technology failures or the potential dangers a spill could pose, instead stating that the safety and engineering requirements for offshore drilling were “extensive” and blowouts were “very rare.” He’s faults MMS for not providing the information in their report to the administration, but skirts the fact that MMS is a division of the Department of Interior. If MMS wasn’t giving the administration accurate information, that was DOI’s problem to address.

But it gets worse. Hayes wants us to think that Interior had no way of predicting problems at MMS, despite the piles of evidence to the contrary.

“We did not have red flags about a problem with the enforcement culture at M.M.S.,” Mr. Hayes said. “We certainly have that now.”

No red flags? Reports on technology failures aside, those sex, oil, and cocaine parties weren’t enough of a warning that something was terribly wrong at MMS? Is Hayes seriously trying to argue that DOI was blameless here?

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