Investigators: Coast Guard should step up security screenings of oil platforms

Although the Coast Guard aims to inspect oil and gas platforms and other offshore energy facilities once every year, only about a third got the security screenings from 2008 to 2010, according to a government report released this week.

At risk, according to the Government Accountability Office, are offshore oil and natural gas facilities that “may be an attractive target to terrorists.”

“Because of their importance to the economy and national security, (outer continental shelf) facilities and deep-water ports are possible targets for al Qaeda and other groups with malevolent intent,” noted the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, in its report.

Many of the facilities are located in open waters, miles away from Coast Guard assets and personnel, and platforms typically do not have personnel on board who are tasked with detecting or reporting unauthorized incursions.

Although there are about 3,900 oil and gas platforms, mobile drilling units and other facilities on the outer continental shelf, stepped-up federal security requirements only apply to those that are have more than 150 people on board or that are producing at least 100,000 barrels of oil or more than 200 million cubic feet of natural gas per day.

In 2008, 2009 and 2010, about 57 facilities qualified for heightened scrutiny; they were required to have Coast Guard-approved security plans updated every five years.

The Coast Guard’s internal guidance requires annual security inspections of the same facilities, but according to GAO’s analysis, the agency conducted about one-third of those screenings from 2008 through 2010. For instance, in 2008, the Coast Guard inspected just seven of what was then 56 offshore energy facilities that qualified for heightened security reviews.

And some field units did not realize the full portfolio of facilities they were tasked with inspecting, the GAO found. For instance, the investigators said some Coast Guard staff “did not know that they were responsible for conducting security inspections of fixed (outer continental shelf) facilities,” which are often unmanned.

The GAO recommended that the Coast Guard step up its system for inspecting the facilities and tracking those screenings.

The Homeland Security Department said it agreed with the recommendation and that the Coast Guard is working to update its internal databases tracking the vessels and facilities that qualify for additional scrutiny.

“As the lead federal agency for maritime security, the Coast Guard remains committed to continuing its work. . . to meet the challenge of security in these facilities and ports for the safety of our nation,” said Jim Crumpacker, a department director.