During Wednesday’s House hearing on health and safety for oil rig and cleanup workers, Doug Slitor, the director of MMS (the incompetent, scandal-plagued agency in charge of offshore drilling) let loose a remarkable piece of information that reveals the true extent to which MMS is bought and sold by Big Oil.
Slitor told Rep. George Miller that the rules that are supposed to protect the health and safety of oil rig workers were designed 15 years ago by the American Petroleum Institute – the industry and lobbying group for major oil and gas companies. The worst part? Even those regulations are considered “voluntary.”
Until the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April, MMS had not consulted with OSHA, the government’s worker health and safety agency. Only after the disaster began to unfold did OSHA, whose jurisdiction ends 3 miles offshore, out of range for most oil rigs, reach out to MMS to compare notes on their safety regulations.
Rep. George Miller, Chair of the Education and Labor Committee in the House, pressed MMS’s Slitor for details on MMS’s safety regulations after the Coast Guard told Miller that after an initial inspection by the CG, subsequent safety checks are the responsibility of MMS.
Miller: Where did you get the expertise to develop this rule [about worker safety]?
Slitor: We participated with the American Petroleum Institute in developing —
Miller: That’s an organization of oil companies?
Slitor. Yes. — developing a recommended practice. It has been in use for approximately 15 years. We’ve kind of monitored the —
Miller: Been in use on the rigs for 15 years?
Slitor: It is a voluntary program since it is a recommended practice. We are moving forward at this time to make it a requirement.
Miller: Have you discussed this with OSHA?
Slitor: Yes, actually we have.
Slitor: It was after the Deepwater Horizon event. OSHA contacted us to gain a better understanding of our regulations with respect to worker safety.
Miller: I would be very concerned on how this is being developed. These safety process management rules are absolutely critical in these worker environments. It is stunning that we don’t have one in place for these rigs.
Miller (later): I find it, when you’re taking advice from the oil industry, that you wouldn’t bounce it off [OSHA]- that they regulate the oil industry where we’ve had these tragedies in refineries in Washington, the midwest, Texas, my district where people have lost their lives, that we wouldn’t have some kind of discussion before this goes to final rule. That it wouldn’t just come out of the oil industry’s recommendations. That’s not what the public is looking for. I hope we can have a little time-out here.
Miller seemed honestly stunned that MMS unilaterally took the recommendations of the American Petroleum Institute to implement voluntary worker safety processes without consulting the experts already regulating the oil industry onshore at OSHA. When OSHA Director David Michaels was asked if he was interested in taking jurisdiction from MMS for offshore rigs, he immediately declined on the basis that OSHA is already stretched too thin, and couldn’t possibly handle that increased responsibility.
So we have yet another example of regulatory capture by the oil industry, and not just on how to drill: this time, it’s clear MMS had no problem putting the lives of oil workers in the greedy hands of the oil industry. It’s also clear we need to drastically beef up OSHA to be able to handle these problems, as well as the multitude of other workplace safety issues across the country.