May 4, 2010 -- The federal agency charged with enforcing safety on deepwater oil rigs has also played a major role in promoting the industry's claim that it is safe, and in 2009 handed out one of its top prizes for safety to Transocean's Deepwater Horizon.
Transocean's safety effort included two dance videos, one of them a hip-hop video promoting safety that was filmed on the Deepwater Horizon. The Deepwater Horizon exploded last week, killing 11 and unleashing what could become one of the worst oil spill disasters in the nation's history.
The Minerals Management Service, which falls under the U.S. Department of Interior, touts the recipients in government press releases and hosts an awards luncheon at a lavish industry association conference in Houston. This year's luncheon was scheduled for Monday before it was abruptly canceled.
"The ongoing situation with the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling accident has caused the MMS to dedicate considerable resources to the successful resolution of this event which will conflict with holding this ceremony next week," a statement released on the conference web site says. " The MMS will announce an alternative plan during the next several weeks."
MMS issued its SAFE award to Transocean for its performance in 2008, crediting the company's "outstanding drilling operations" and a "perfect performance period." Transocean spokesman Guy Cantwell told ABC News the awards recognized a spotless record during repeated MMS inspections, and should be taken as evidence of the company's longstanding commitment to safety.
One element of Transocean's safety campaign was a campy, and now somewhat macabre, music video that was filmed on the decks of the Deepwater Horizon rig. The video uses hip-hop songs to encourage workers to "keep your hands clear" while performing tasks. In one scene, workers in red jump suits dance on the platform's helipad.
A second video shows Transocean President and COO Steven Newman making good on a promise to do a dance if the India division had the best safety record in the company two years in a row. Newman and backup dancers perform to the sounds of music from an Indian movie at a company meeting in Mumbai in February 2009.
Nicholas Pardi, an MMS spokesman, told ABC News that the awards have long been one of the agency's programs, but said it does not supplant its other regulatory responsibilities. Pardi said MMS conducted 26 inspections on the Deepwater Horizon in the past five years. "Our job is to regulate the oil and gas industry and we take that very seriously," Pardi said.
MMS has a checkered past with respect to its oversight role. In 2008, it was caught up in a scandal in which the Department of Interior's inspector general found that regulators had "inappropriate relationships with industry that could compromise their objectivity," relationships that allegedly included sharing alcohol at industry functions, using drugs, and sexual relationships.
In March, the former Minerals Management Service director, Randall Luthi, was named president of the National Ocean Industries Association, an offshore drilling association. "I am honored to have this opportunity to represent the NOIA membership and excited by the upcoming challenge of working to impact policies favorable to the offshore energy industry," Luthi said in a press release.
In an interview with ABC News, Luthi said he expects there will be scrutiny of the MMS efforts to insure the rig was operating safely. "There's going to be those questions asked. During my time, we required thousands of inspections to be conducted. You want a cooperative atmosphere. But you want to be sure that MMS was calling the inspections as they were needed, and doing the necessary backup."
The Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group that has been critical of the way MMS handles its regulatory responsibilities, called on House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman this week to expand the committee's investigation "to see whether the Minerals Management Service conducted adequate oversight of the drilling rig," according to a statement on its web site.