Rules so loose you could float a rig through them

What if you had a rule that was based on a recommendation that no one really had to follow? Would it then still be a rule? And what would happen if you didn’t follow it?

AP

Transocean’s Billy Stringfellow testifying yesterday

I found myself pondering such philosophical questions as I left the spill hearings late yesterday. Billy Stringfellow, a subsea superintendent for Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon, said his company had its own process for maintaining blowout preventers and didn’t always follow maintenance recommendations of the American Petroleum Institute.

The company does routine and thorough maintenance, but it has its own rules based on its experiences with the equipment. Some of API’s recommendations aren’t practical, he said.

But Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, co-chair of the panel investigating the Deepwater Horizon accident, pointed out that API recommendation is also the government regulation. He said he found Transocean’s “cavalier attitude” toward the regulations disturbing.

“Now we have a company, Transocean or somebody else, deciding their program is better,” he said. “What good’s the regulation that sets the minimum standard when everybody’s doing their own thing out there?”

Stringfellow said that since the government rule says to follow a recommendation that’s basically optional, Transocean felt it was complying with the regulation. Nguyen shot back that if Transocean thought minimum standards were optional, they should have clarified the point.

“That question is not something that we should have to debate today,” Nguyen said. “It should have been debated a long time ago.”

After all, we’re talking about minimum standards for a crucial piece of safety equipment. Clearly, the government didn’t adopt a regulation with the intent of it being optional.

If companies are disregarding BOP maintenance requirements, what other equipment regulations are they deciding to ignore?

For weeks, the industry has argued that the government lacks the technical experience to make informed regulations. It seems the government agreed, relying instead on standards developed by the industry. Now we find out that the industry doesn’t even follow its own rules.